Ask Brian McLaren…(Response)

Photo by Courtney Perry

Photo by Courtney Perry

You posed some really fantastic questions for our guest today—Brian McLaren—and Brian responded with his characteristic depth, graciousness, and sincerity. The result is a truly fascinating interview. 

As you already know, Brian is an author, speaker, activist, and networker among innovative Christian leaders. He began his career as a college English teacher and then worked as a church planter and pastor for twenty-four years. His dozen-plus books include A New Kind of ChristianityA Generous OrthodoxyNaked Spirituality,and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian’s latest book, We Make the Road by Walking, releases today! I had the chance to read an early copy and it’s one of my favorites of Brian's. Organized around the traditional church year, each chapter reflects on a different story from Scripture and invites contemplation, discussion, and action. 

Brian took a lot of time and care responding to your questions. Hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did: 

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From Daneen: I love Brian's books! They have been water for my parched soul. I want to ask him about an idea I've seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn't a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that's my question, and I'm sure he's thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether? 

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn't be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely. 

I think it's worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn't believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient. 

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means "disbelief in the God of the establishment," since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there's a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward "the just and the unjust" as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel's first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven't followed Ryan Bell's blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: "For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence." I think that's an accurate - and tragic - statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: "But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie."

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with "new evidence" of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago. 

And of course, it's not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left? Will any concept of meaning, purpose, value, direction, and value come back? As my friend Steve McIntosh asked me earlier this year, "Can we get God back at a higher level?"

I think Ryan Bell is grappling with this challenge. In order to get God back at a higher level, we have to be willing to let the lower level conceptions of God go. Peter Rollins has been another courageous thinker in this regard. The process isn't easy. The outcomes aren't guaranteed. We have to make room for one another to be at different places, in different "time zones" if you will, which is hard for many people to do - and nearly impossible for some churches to allow, sad to say. 

I have tended to do this kind of deconstructive questioning in private, and then write about the positive conclusions I've reached. But the deconstructive work must also be written about. Maybe my approach has been more pastoral, and Ryan's and Peter's more philosophical … but both are needed.

A philosopher who has engaged with this process in a very helpful way for me is Richard Kearney. The title of his book Anatheism suggests the recovery of God after atheism - not old theism, not atheism, but a new search for God after one has lost his or her old faith. Here are a few choice quotes from Anatheism:

  • So much depends, of course, on what we mean by God. If transcendence is indeed a surplus of meaning, it requires a process of endless interpretation…. The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism. (xiv)

  • If the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics. There is no God’s-eye view of things available to us. For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe. Hermeneutics is a lesson in humility (we all speak from finite situations) as well as imagination (we fill in the gaps between available and ulterior meanings). Hermeneutics remind us that the holiest of books are works of interpretation – for authors no less than readers. Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single word (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others. (xv)

  • And that is, I think, a grace of philosophy. It opens a space for the questioning of God where theists and atheists may converse. It invites us to revise old interpretations and reimagine new ones. (xvii)

  • The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. (14)

  • … the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

  • The great stories of Israel are, I am suggesting, testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. This, in effect, makes every dramatic encounter between the human and the divine into a radical hermeneutic wager: compassion or murder. You either welcome or refuse the stranger. Monotheism is the history of this wager. (22)

 

Obviously, I could go on and on. But I want to mention two other quotes from Kearney that intersect with my own work. 

First, Kearney asks, "So what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he advocated an 'irreligious Christianity?' … Religion was but a ‘garment’ tailored to the needs of different historical epochs over two thousand years. So the real question for us today is What kind of God could be the Lord of a nonreligious Christianity? .. Bohoeffer’s postreligious Christianity took the form of an atheistic rejection of the metaphysical God combined with a belief in the suffering God. (66-67)"

I haven't spoken of this much, but this insight was very much behind my book Naked Spirituality. We need a spirituality that allows us to strip away old conceptions and welcome new ones … a faith that is (to evoke my new title) a road, not a warehouse or parking lot. A flexible (or naked) spirituality carries us, I think, when our bolted-down theology falls apart on us.

Second, Kearney says, "…one must, I suggest, abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of inteconfessional hospitality can be born. And, insofar as religious dogma has often served as vehicle of infantile fear and dependency, the interreligious God may be described as a postdogmatic God. That is why anatheism appreciates a rigorous atheistic critique of the theistic perversions of religion." (52)

Obviously, this was a big part of my last book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I read the Bible not as a static revelation of God in a system, but as a dynamic narrative of human discovery as old conceptions of God die and new conceptions are born in the vacuum. To be a believer is not to stop or freeze the quest for bigger and better and deeper and truer conceptions of what is ultimate and true and beautiful and valuable, but to join it. 

So … to get back to your question: Some forms of atheism, like some forms of religion, are also parking lots or warehouses. They mark the end of questioning, search, wondering, imagining, hoping, dreaming, opening. But I trust that for many, atheism is more like taking off of a suit of clothes that no longer fits. It is scary to be naked … especially when there are accusatory and mocking inquisitors out there ready to pounce, mock, criticize, and so on, motivated by the kind of fear that Ryan wrote about. 

So, Daneen, we might say that good faith is at heart not becoming "impervious to new evidence," but rather the reverse: a vulnerability to new evidence and possibilities, a nakedness of the kind we experience at birth or when we go to the doctor or when we make love, a confession that "I haven't yet arrived, but am still on the road, still seeking, still on the quest." Whatever God is, God must not be smaller than our questions! So for me, one of the meanings of the resurrection is that just after you think God has died, a surprise is in store. I would hope that whatever progressive/emergence/etc. Christianity is … it makes room both for the questioning and the surprise.

 

From Vanessa: Almost a decade ago, my husband picked up a copy of A New Kind of Christian and it proceeded to wreck my safe and well-ordered life. If you happen to remember meeting me, I'm the one who told you that there were times in the years that followed that I wanted to punch you in the face. Since that time, though, I've mellowed and fully embraced my new, amazing life as an emergent church planter.

My question is about our kids. In the old, established fundamentalist/ evangelical world, we knew what the product of our parenting was supposed to look like, and my husband and I were everything the establishment dreamed we would be (for awhile anyway). We are finding parenting teens in this new, un-programmed, dismantled, church environment a little agoraphobia-inducing. What does a healthy young person look like after growing up in Emergence Christianity? What are we shooting for in the faith-education of our kids?

Another tremendous question, Vanessa. I've been complaining about the same things and asking the same questions for several years, which is why I'm so grateful to a group that has come together under the name Faith Forward to grapple with exactly these questions. You can learn more at http://faith-forward.net.

I don't think the ideal long-term is "un-programmed, dismantled, agoraphobia-inducing" church environments. I think we need to reconstruct in the ruins of what has been deconstructed - and, of course, to do so in a wise and re-deconstructible (iterative) way. That's a big part of what my new book tries to do: propose (by example rather than argument) new ways of reading the Bible, new ways of imagining church gatherings, new ways of inviting rather than suppressing questions and dialogue.

Will it "work?" One can only hope. But it's clear for many of us that we aren't faced with a choice between a status quo that is working and a radical new proposal that might not work. Rather, we are faced with a status quo that is not working for more and more people, and new proposals that may work. We will only know by pressing on in faith.

I might add that the earliest Christians must have faced a similar situation. Could the faith possibly be passed on without circumcision, temple, priesthood, sacrifice, holy city, and so on? It was a daring risk to imagine that it could. It took ongoing experimentation to find new forms that worked. Each form created new problems, of course, as it solved others, which is why we're never finished. Again, we're on a road, not sitting in a parking lot.

 

From Chris: Do any current members of the evangelical establishment ever approach you discretely to show support or to receive counsel ala Nicodemus? Not interested in names as much as what that conversation tends to look/sound like.

Nobody ever asked me this before, Chris. Short answer, yes. I'll give a few quick examples.

Several years ago, an executive of an Evangelical organization met me in a hallway. "Ah, McLaren. I've read your work and I don't like it. I disagree with it on almost every page," he said. Then he paused, "But my adult sons are far from the church and far from God, and if they ever come back, I imagine it will be to your kind of Christianity and not mine." Then, almost by accident, it seemed, he added, "So I guess I wish you well." Then he walked away.

Another fellow in that same organization emailed me once and said, "Some of my colleagues are out to destroy you. I appreciate what you're doing, so I just wanted to warn you to watch your back."

When some Evangelical magazines and websites wrote snarky things about my participation in my gay son's wedding, several prominent Evangelicals contacted me in private and said, "You did the right thing." One told me that the hardest part of his job as a denominational executive was hearing from the parents of gay children who were driven out of churches in his denomination. He couldn't change the denomination without splitting it, he said, and he was glad that he could retire soon because he couldn't stand the agony of being part of causing pain for so many gay people and their families. A charismatic leader told me had had performed a wedding in private for his gay grandson. People would be shocked how many people seem to support the status quo by their public silence, but privately aren't there.

A couple years ago I was in a restaurant eating with my wife. My phone rang and it was a very prominent Evangelical writer. "I was just in a conversation with so and so and so and so." (He mentioned two other well-known Evangelicals.) "Your name came up and all three of us admitted that we read you and largely agree with you. I thought you would want to know that. There are a lot of people who are silent, but they're re-thinking things." Then he hung up and my wife and I finished our supper. It was kind of surreal.

 

From Jonathan: Have you seen any examples of emergent ministry in small towns or rural locations? How can ministers serving in rural areas reach the emerging generation while also serving parishioners with highly traditional and conservative values?

Yes to your first question, Jonathan. In fact, some of the most surprising experiments are taking place in these settings precisely because younger generations are being driven away in such large numbers. But your second question surfaces the problem. The people who helping "emerging generations" usually can't simultaneously help the highly conservative/traditional folks. 

It does happen occasionally, and I could imagine it happening more. The minister would need to serve the traditional congregation well, while maintaining his/her integrity by not saying things he/she didn't believe. This is often hard, but with a lot of wisdom (wise as serpents, innocent as doves?) it can be done. Then, in his/her free time - not "on the clock" so to speak - the minister could invite some people over to his/her house, or meet with them in a restaurant or coffee shop or whatever. Sometimes the people the minister would be helping in secret would be the sons and daughters of those who would fire him if they knew. That kind of ministry life isn't for everyone - but it isn't boring!

 

From Meagan: Brian (can I call you Brian?), I'm currently in the middle of your book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, and so far, it's a refreshing and interesting read (and the first of your books I've ever read). Many of the struggles and tensions you discuss describe my own faith journey right now. I come from a similar conservative background, and several of the ideas and thoughts I grew up with have been shaken down around me within the last few years (mostly thanks to writers like Donald Miller, Jen Hatmaker, and Rachel, of course). My question for you is: How do you personally handle push-back? I'm not sure what your personality type is, but I'm the type of person who is comfortable when most everyone likes me. However, much of my thinking no longer meshes well with many people from my childhood, and I've been largely afraid to "come out" as not-so-politically/theologically-conservative anymore. What advice would you give to someone like me?

Meagan, this is such an important question. I've addressed this a number of times on my own blog. If you follow this link, I think you'll find some helpful responses.  The most important post I've written on this question, I think, is this one: "If You're Getting Criticized.." 

Here's one other suggestion. When you're with friends or relatives who say something you disagree with, try saying - good naturally, "Wow! I see that differently!" They'll probably ask why. I recommend saying, "I don't need to go into it. I just wanted you to know not everybody sees it that way." That might make them even more curious, but I would try not to explain if at all possible, because in so doing, you exemplify that you can still be friends and on good terms without needing them to agree with you. If they really want to know, you might say, "It's a long story. Maybe we should set up another time and I can tell you." That won't guarantee a good outcome, of course, but it avoids two unhelpful outcomes that commonly happen:

1. You stay silent and become "complicit in your own diminishment" (as Parker Palmer says).

2. You get into an argument and fracture relationships.

Sometimes, this question is helpful: "Ok, we clearly disagree. How do you think we should deal with our disagreement?" In that way, you shift the focus from the content to the process. You might be able to agree on the process even while disagreeing on the content. Sometimes, of course, the other person will cut you off or hurt you - maybe not intentionally, but as a result of feeling they aren't being faithful unless they punish you in some way for being wrong. And when that's the case, check out that post I linked to above.
 

From Caddy: Hello. I grew up conservative evangelical but over the last few years have become a more progressive Christian. This has caused some friction with my family. They still love me absolutely, but it scares them that I believe different things than they do. What I want is for them to trust me to God and understand that just because I read the Bible differently that doesn't mean that I no longer love God/Jesus/the church/the Bible. I think they're wrong on a great number of topics, but I also know that they love the Lord and are trying to do what's right. I can live with our disagreements, but it's harder for them. I really want them to give me the benefit of the doubt, but they seem unable to do so. I want to be able to be honest with them about what I believe, but whenever I am, it just seems to cause them real distress. I know that this distress comes from a place of fear, fear that I'm walking away from God, though I am not. Lying to them or just keeping my real beliefs to myself seems wrong, but so does causing continual stress for our relationship by being honest.

Do you have any ideas for how I can get them to understand that that fear is only going to do bad things to our relationship (and that fear is not of God) and get them to trust me to God's hands? All my friends who have left evangelical Christianity just say, "Give them an ultimatum and if they continue to make you feel bad, kick them out of your life," but I love them so much and want them to be a part of my life. I'm having trouble figuring out how to maintain our relationships when they're so very scared for me. Thanks so much for doing this!

First, Caddy, I'm kind of with you. I'm not a big fan of giving people ultimata and kicking them out of your life if the violate them. I have one suggestion beyond what I shared in response  Meagan's question, and really, you already made it clear you "get" this.

What a lot of people need in situations like this is reassurance. So you need to keep telling them things that are obvious to you, but maybe not so much to them. "I was praying for you … I heard a great sermon … I'm reading a great book on the spiritual life … I came across this beautiful verse in Luke the other day … I was talking with a friend from church …." Often, people keep arguing when what their friend needs most is reassurance.

When Jesus talked about throwing pearls before swine or throwing holy things to dogs, the imagery seems a bit insulting … but putting that aside, I think he's saying that we shouldn't push things on people that they're not interested in, ready for, appreciative of, etc. That might mean that we focus on reassurance rather than challenge.

One other thing might be helpful to keep in mind. Let's say you're having trouble with your Aunt Jane. She's always worried you're becoming one of those depraved liberals, satanic emergents, etc. etc. You have to remember that she listens to Christian radio every day, and there are preachers constantly warning her about those horrible realities. So this isn't really about you. It's about the radio preachers she is so dedicated to. To be faithful to them, she has to be suspicious of you. With that in mind, at some point, you might need to say, "Hey Aunt Jane, you know how you really love John MacArthur and Albert Mohler on the radio? I'm a huge fan of Rachel Held Evans and (whoever) in the blogosphere in the same way." In that way, you're defining your difference differently, and you're allowing her to understand you in terms she might be able to relate to.

 

From Cindy: As my denomination (United Methodist) continues to tear itself apart over how we will or won't receive LGBTQ people in our midst, I despair that the losers in our struggle will be the poor and other marginalized people, who Jesus called us to be in ministry with. If you got to set a course for how we (and other denominations) could navigate through these choppy waters, what would it be?

Cindy, I share your grief … especially remembering how Southern Baptists, Southern Presbyterians, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South separated from their northern sisters and brothers over the issue of slavery in the 19th century. That didn't turn out so well! Those divisions give meaning to the cliche "the wrong side of history."

In one sense, I understand the case for schism/separation. My conservative Presbyterian friends who have left the PCUSA are much happier now and can get on with life without having to deal with people they considered apostate, etc.

But here's the problem. Ten minutes after the splits occur, babies will be born. And over the next twenty or thirty years, about six percent of those babies will come out as gay. Add their parents (12%) and a sibling and grandparent or two in, and soon a third of the people in the denomination are or love someone who is gay. So the issue won't go away.

Not only that, but as more and more states legalize gay marriage, these churches will find themselves in the position of Bob Jones University, which distinguished itself as a holdout supporter of racial segregation until 2000. 

And I should add that "follow the money" applies in this situation too. Thousands of pastors know that if they accept LGBTA people as equals, key donors will stop supporting them. In the longer term, I think the opposite will be the case: more and more donors will refuse to support organizations that stigmatize LGBTQ people. 

As for your practical question - how to navigate the mess - I think of Solomon's divide-the-baby option, except that in this case, it's more like a divorce with lots of kids involved, and sometimes the warring parties are happy to take a few of the kids they like and let their "ex" take the others. 

But if I "got" (or was held at gunpoint and forced) to set the course, here's one approach I would consider. From the start, I'd propose at least four or five options, not just two. When people are forced to choose between two options, they often fail to see the full range of consequences because they are only afraid of avoiding the opposite choice's consequences. So options might be …

A. We accept LGBTQ people as equal, and accept that a significant percentage of people will leave, especially older and more dedicated donors, which will have results in closing seminaries, stopping mission to needy people, spending millions on lawyers, etc., etc.

B. We keep our conservative position but make allowances for congregations or conferences that differ, knowing that we will lose some people who will be against any compromise.

C. We accept a progressive position but make allowances for congregations or conferences that differ, knowing that we will lose some people who will be against any compromise.

D. We refuse to accept LGBTQ people as equal, and accept that a significant percentage of people will leave, especially younger and more educated people, which will have results in closing seminaries, stopping mission to needy people, spending millions on lawyers, etc., etc.

E. We allow current conservative regulations to continue and we create a mechanism for people to violate those regulations to remain, knowing that some people on both sides will leave because they disapprove of this option.

Then, I would institute a brief but intense study period to estimate the consequences of each option. I would spend the money on professional researches to conduct surveys so the results would be data-based.

Then, I would develop a way for the denomination to make a choice among options … with the estimated costs and benefits clearly articulated. I would also build in a review period with an opportunity to make corrections to whichever path was chosen based on unforeseen consequences that must be addressed.

I should say that I would consider a completely different line of approach as well. In that approach, I would invite the denomination not to solve this problem, but to see this problem as a symptom of much larger and deeper problems. In that light, I would invite the denomination to consider a historic restructuring - no, more radical than that, a historic re-founding.

Because at the end of the day, denominational structures are all under stress, even considered completely apart from this issue. Post offices, record labels, publishing companies, book stores, TV networks, travel agencies, education systems, economic systems, even governments are all under stress because they have transformed the conditions under which they were created. The church is not alone in facing these epochal shifts in culture. Almost all (maybe all?) institutions are in a period of stress, which is the critical ingredient of evolution … or extinction.

One other comment … when I was a pastor doing pre-marital and marital counseling, I used to encourage couple in conflict to agree on how and when they want to resolve the conflict before they tried to resolve the conflict itself. Without agreeing on the how/when questions - viciously? quickly? patiently? kindly? compassionately? by vote? by mediator? with or without outside help? in secret? transparently? - attempts to resolve the conflicts themselves are almost always controlled by the least patient, most desperate, least thoughtful, most reactive, frightened, or angry party.

Cindy, people like you can make a big difference in all this. Keep positive. Love everybody. Resist the urge to imitate the behavior of those who hurt you. Seek the guidance and empowerment of the Spirit. Welcome the opportunity for growth. Be a non- anxious presence. And know that whatever other people do, you can still do good, beautiful, kind, and loving things.

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The amazing thing is Brian sent me these responses the day after I sent him the question! The guy's a writing machine.  Be sure to check out We Make The Road By Walking, which releases today. 

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Ask a pastor’s wife and a pastor’s husband…(response & invitation)

You submitted hundreds of fantastic questions for the latest installment of our “Ask…” series— Ask a Pastor’s Wife and a Pastor’s Husband. It was also really cool to hear from those of you who are married to pastors who had insights and stories to share in the comment section. So I’d like to extend a special invitation to pastor spouses/partners to join Jim and Jodie by responding to one more of these questions yourselves, from your experience. 

Our guests: Jodie Howerton is a freelance writer and communications consultant who has been married to her pastor husband, Mike, for 18 years. She has 3 children and is the founder of the Redefine Positive Project, an initiative that is working to reform HIV/AIDS education in public schools across the nation. Jim Kast-Keat is married to Jes, the Associate Minister at West End Collegiate Church in New York City. Along with being a pastor's husband, Jim is also a pastor, serving as the Associate Minister for Education at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village. He is the creator and curator of ThirtySecondsOrLess.net.

 

From Katie: Do you feel any kind of pressure to always be putting on the "best face" for any situation? I know that the preacher's wife in my church growing up was very constrained; she didn't feel free to express any negative opinions at all, even just to talk about her kids being a handful, because the pastor's family is supposed to be the "example". I assume the preacher felt similarly, though I never talked to him about it. I wondered if you two feel that pressure to always be the best marriage in your church, the happiest, the glowiest, the everything-is-wonderful-even-when-it's-not “example.” If you do, how do you deal with the added stress? If not, was it something you did deal with and have sort of gone through and come out the other side?

Jodie: 

Katie, to a certain extent, I think that all families in ministry do feel pressured to pretend sometimes. When I attend church or drop my children off in their Sunday school classes, I definitely have a sense that we are being watched. Actually, we are frequently watched at grocery stores, restaurants, airports – even on vacation. It’s not that people are being rude; it’s just that there is a natural fascination with leaders and their families. I’m not sure that pastors and their families will ever be completely out of the spotlight. With leadership, comes exposure, for better and for worse. 

However, what I’ve learned over the years is that you cannot allow other people’s expectations to dictate how you live, love, and serve. A wide variety of spoken and unspoken expectations will always be there for pastors and their families. The problem with these expectations is that they are absolutely impossible to meet. Expectations can often be suffocating, all consuming, and guilt producing. If we try to meet them all, we will burn out. When families in ministry pretend to have perfect lives, they become lonely, isolated, and flat out miserable. 

The truth is that my kids are a handful sometimes, that my husband and I fight sometimes, and that everything is not always wonderful. Our family experiences the same struggles that “normal” families do. We have been honest about that – from the pulpit and in private conversations with those in our church. In many ways, we have refused to step up onto the proverbial pedestal that those in ministry are often placed on. I’m not saying I tell everyone I meet at church about the private struggles we are facing, but I do feel free to let people know that I do not have all the answers and that the “example” we are trying to set is one of authenticity. 

There is absolutely no way I can live up to the expectations imposed on me by other people. Instead of asking, “is the congregation happy with my performance as a pastor’s wife?”, I ask myself, “Am I living how God is calling me to live? What are my own passions in ministry? Do I need a break?”

Dealing with impossible expectations is stressful, even when I’m asking myself the right questions and setting firm boundaries. So, self-care is really important in my life. It sounds cliché, but regular exercise, an occasional therapy appointment, and date nights with my husband help keep my stress level and anxiety manageable. When those things are absent, I’m not very fun to be around. :-) 

Jim: 

Short answer: Yes. And it sucks.

Long(er) answer: Yes. And it really sucks.

Actual answer: Much of this "best face syndrome" is a result of a projected identity. When I find myself putting on this "best face" as a pastor's husband I am often living in to the identity that is being projected on me. A pastor can't have any doubts, and therefore their partner must be perfect too, not to mention their conflict and blemish free relationship. This is why going to church as a pastor's husband is never just "going to church." People will inevitably read into the dark circles under my eyes, my tone of voice, and my posture, assuming it all says something about what's happening behind the scenes. They don't want to see me (let alone my partner) as human; we must be all things super human, a glimpse and hope for the Übermensch. 

So yes, this pressure exists. It can't not exist. But what do we do about it? Jes is excellent about articulating what it means to be human. It does not mean we are perfect and pristine but messy and real. We both try and be authentic people when we are in her congregation, recognizing the necessary role/function boundaries that must exist (sermons should be authentic but they aren't the pastor's therapy session). I can't control how someone perceives me but I can control my posture. I can choose an authentic posture rather than feeling like I must become the perceived and projected identity and "best face" imposed upon me. And we give ourselves space to take off this projected "best face" when we are with close friends or alone together. We recognize that the "best face" imposed on us will never be who we are, but simply who others want us to be.


 From Rachel: Jodie, I spoke with a youth pastor once who said there were girls in his youth group who, when asked what they wanted to do for a career, said they wanted to be pastors wives when they grew up. He was a bit surprised by this and, as he prodded, found what they really wanted was to be in ministry, but because they had seen so few women in those roles, they thought they had to essentially “marry in” to pastoral ministry.

This struck me on a lot of levels—one of which was the degree to which the Pastor’s Wife is often seen as an official ministry position in a church…even when the pastor’s wife isn’t usually on the church payroll and often has a job and responsibilities of her own. So my question is: How do you manage that expectation? How do you partner with your husband (as any couple should) without assuming the role of a full-time minister when that’s not your calling? And any thoughts on what you would say to a young woman who aspires to the role of pastor's wife someday?

Jodie: 

Rachel, the story you tell of your friend is one that I have also heard. In fact, when I was in junior high, I remember being at a Christian youth conference where the speaker did an altar call of sorts for “young men called to be pastors” and “young women called to be pastors’ wives.” Many young women stepped boldly onto the stage and I’ve often thought that these women were actually being stirred by the call to ministry, not matrimony. The church has historically placed a very low ceiling on female leadership, but God has not. I am thrilled to be in a church that encourages women to be leaders and simultaneously validates their call with the title, “pastor.” 

I have often found it interesting and sad that the church bestows leadership and authority on women simply because they are married to the guy in charge. I happen to be married to the guy in charge at our church, am a strong leader, and passionately pursue my relationship with Christ, but my degrees are in English and Spanish Literature. I’m not a pastor. By contrast, one of the female pastors at our church has her doctorate in Biblical Studies. She’s more than qualified for the job and I am incredibly fortunate to worship under her leadership. Pastoral ministry is the only profession that automatically qualifies spouses for the profession; if I were married to a surgeon, it would not be automatically assumed that I could perform an appendectomy. 

I’m not saying that pastors’ wives can’t be effective, authoritative, compassionate, leaders. Quite the opposite. In many churches the pastor and his/her spouse are the only leaders and called by God to be exactly where they are. I’m just arguing that the system of assigning leadership and authority to pastors’ spouses is not always based on their gifting. 

To answer your first question, I do work and have many other responsibilities outside the church. There is often pressure to be more involved in church life, but I really do my best to serve where God calls me to instead of out of obligation. Over the years, I have learned to set pretty firm boundaries. When we serve out of obligation, we become jaded, bitter, and lonely. And, I really strive to put my family first. I’ve learned that just because people want me to serve in certain ways doesn’t mean that’s where God is calling me to serve. Most of the “ministry” I do is actually in the community at large outside of the church building. 

Now, to your second question. My husband and I are partners in everything. We process and discuss just about every issue that pops up in both our jobs. What he needs more than my physical presence at every church event is my emotional support and belief in him. And, that’s what I need from him. 

Finally, to young women who aspire to be pastors’ wives, I want to applaud and honor your desire to serve God. “Marrying in” to ministry is one way to serve, but by no means the only way. I would challenge you to fully explore and evaluate what God’s call is on your life and pursue with your whole heart. 


From Corey: Jim, I too am a pastor's husband. I was wondering how you would handle congregants or other folks who harass, start fights or otherwise try to start drama with your wife? My instinct when people try to start stuff is to jump to her defense, but I always have to weigh that against the fact that some might see it as "Oh, the little girl can't fight her own fights." I mean, she's my wife, I love her, and I never want anyone to mess with her, but I also can't do anything that might make it harder for her to do her job, even if my instinct is to stick up for her while fully acknowledging she can fend for herself. My personality is one that lends itself toward a fierce protective instinct toward those about whom I care the most (which obviously includes my wife). Just curious to get another pastor's husband perspective.

Jim

I'll answer this question three ways: triangles, shadow boxing, and a shoulder.

By triangles I am referring to the far-too-common practice of triangulation in relationships. And when drama queens and kings emerge, I am intentional about standing with my wife but never creating a triangulated relational dynamic. If someone from the congregation takes issue with something Jes said or did, I direct them to Jes.  And if someone from the congregation is overflowing with love and praise from something Jes said or did, I direct them to Jes. While everything in me often wants to raise a shield or unleash an arrow that will strike down whatever opposition comes her way, I am Jes' squire more than I am her knight. I don't fight her battles for her but support her as she fights them herself. (This is especially important with the implicit gender roles and expectations that can too easily be projected on us.)

And to continue an unintentionally violent metaphor: shadowboxing. By this I mean that sometimes Jes needs a safe place to throw some practice punches and try out her footwork. I'm not a punching bag - she doesn't come at me swinging - but I am a sounding board, giving her the necessary space to practice her response and anticipate the next round that will inevitably emerge.

And in the midst of this anti-triangulation and shadow boxing, my shoulder plays plays perhaps the most important part in my role with Jes in these situations. I am a shoulder to lean on when someone causes her to limp, a shoulder to cry on when someone goes too far, and a shoulder that nudges her forward when she needs the reminder to be the brave and bold pastor God has called her to be.


From Bethany: Do you experience any pressure to agree with your spouse on theological issues in order to present a 'united front' to the congregation?

Jodie: 

Bethany, the answer to this question is a resounding yes! Now, agreeing with and supporting my husband are two very different things. I do often sense that people believe that my husband and I either do agree on all theological issues or should agree. Like many couples, we have vibrant discussions about faith, politics, family, and just about everything else. Sometimes we land on opposite sides of certain issues. But, in our disagreement, we maintain respect for one another’s viewpoints. While we certainly do not always broadcast our private discussions and differences to the congregation, we give one another space and permission to wrestle with issues and arrive at different conclusions. We are each wrestling with our own complex relationship with God and through this wrestling, sharpen one another. 

So, how does this agree to disagree thing play out in front of the congregation? In short, I support my husband in public without agreeing with him 100% of the time. I don’t contradict him from the stage, but I do feel free to engage in open theological discussions via private conversation. It is important to present a “united” front to the congregation. But, to me “united” doesn’t mean that I’m a theological carbon copy of my husband. “United” means that we model mutual support and respect for one another’s viewpoints – even if they differ. 


Jim: 

While we do strive to present a "united front," this does not mean we have to agree on every theological issue. We see a "united front" as the posture rather than the position we hold. It's not so much whether or not we agree or disagree, but the way in which we do so. We don't agree about everything, privately and publicly, but we are united on the things that shape our lives most (feminist theology, queer theology, liberation theology, etc.).

I don't think a congregation needs an airtight "united front" regarding what their leaders (and their leader's partners) believe so much as they way in which they believe. Jes and I both value dialogue and collaboration, diversity and multi-vocality. To be clear, Jes and I don't agree about everything (just say the word "ontotheology" to both of us and you will see two very different expressions). But we are united in the way that we go about exploring and articulating our beliefs.

Sadly, this "posture over position" approach is not always a reality for everyone, especially when a congregation rallies around their position on issues rather than the posture they take. There is a lot of "position police" in the Christian world (thank you twitter). I'm not sure if this stems from position-paranoid pastors and seeps into congregations or if it starts with the congregation and moves to the pastor for fear of their job security (it's an unanswerable chicken/egg scenario). But I do know that for Jes and me, posture trumps position. While what we believe matters, how we believe it matters more. Regardless of the congregations we find ourselves in, this will always be the rule of life in our home.


From Sherie: Our struggle has always been the "fish bowl" that our children lived in. How many times they had to take a back seat in activities, or not be defended as another parent probably would have because it would be seen as "the pastor" is playing favorites with his kid, rather than a father is defending/supporting his child. How to encourage them to grow up not worrying about what every one thinks, but, all the while, knowing that they know everyone is watching them and often judging their parents based on their actions. It is one of the hardest parts of ministry to me. I feel like our kids were often short-changed. Any wisdom shed here would be awesome.

Jodie: 

Sherie, this is a great question. Pastors’ kids can have such a tough road. Unfortunately, the reality is that the fish bowl is not going away. Rather than resenting it and shaking our fists at it (I still shake my fists at it sometimes), I think we parents of PK’s need to figure out how to parent through it. Pure and simple, our kids cannot take a back seat to ministry. I understand that there are inevitable emergencies in ministry that take us away from our kids, but not every ministry crisis is an emergency. Setting boundaries is crucial. We need to communicate to our kids that their needs are valid, that we hear their struggles, that they have the first rights to our time and attention. In the church context, our kids need to know that we, as pastors and pastors’ spouses, are not relying on them to help maintain or benefit our reputation with congregants. Their spiritual lives must be completely separate from their parents’ job as church leaders. They need to be free to have bad days, to not know the answers, and to not feel the pressure to be perfect. 

Over the years, I have pulled many of the Sunday school teachers and youth workers in my children’s lives aside to ask them to treat my children like any other kid in the youth group. I desperately want my kids to be able to question, doubt, and wrestle with their faith without being judged and without feeling like they have to have the correct answers to all Bible trivia questions and the solution to every theological quandary. Having these conversations with other leaders in my children’s lives has helped my kids have a more “normal” church experience. I have also not ever required my children to be at every single church event and have tried to not have them attend every single service. They spend a lot of time in the church building, but not so much that they feel chained to it. In our family, we’ve tried to create a separation between dad’s job and our family life. I’m not claiming that we have struck a perfect balance, but I’m a big fan of trying to set those boundaries. 


From Becky: Jim, when both you and your spouse are ministry how do you step away from it and not let it consume your whole life? What do you do practically to protect each other and your family from letting it take over?

Jim: 

This question is one of the greatest works in progress in the Kast-Keat home. Theology and spirituality, especially from a feminist and constructive point of view, are some of our greatest shared interests, but when it also consumes much of our professional life we have to be intentional and aware about the boundaries we place on our life and relationship. One of our seminary professors was insistent about the way we prioritize our roles and functions in life: person, partner, parent, pastor. And when there are twopastors in the same house, number four can easily sneak up higher on this list than it should.

So practically, what do we do? We make sure there is more to who we are, as individuals and as partners, than our ministries and our shared interest in theology and spirituality. We cultivate shared and individual hobbies that have nothing to do with church. We play tennis. We go to the ballet. We cook dinner. We binge on Netflix. We go to bookstores. We explore new parts of New York City. We take whiskey appreciation classes. And we are intentional about our separate passions and hobbies: Jes loves fashion, I love board games. Jes plants gardens, I build websites. Jes goes out dancing, I go out photographing. (Yes, I realize that I just portrayed Jes' life as absolutely awesome and mine as utterly geeky. It's a fairly accurate portrayal.)

More than anything Jes and I are intentional about guarding our time together. With so much of our lives lived publicly with our congregations and various ministerial contexts, we find ourselves valuing the time we have without a church steeple looming overhead. This is one of the many reasons why our theological podcast (PodKastKeat, the musings of a modern day Priscilla and Aquilla) was so short lived. With so much of our individual lives revolving around theology we did not want to impose more public theology on our private life together.

But like I said, this is a work in progress. We are each other's sounding board. We share sermon ideas, ask each other's advice, and look to each other for confidence and confidentiality. In many ways it is a gift to have a partner who shares a unique empathy for our similar-yet-different work. But at other times we both find ourselves saying, "Ok, enough about church. No more talking about church for the rest of the night." All I know is that I am lucky to have a partner as supportive, strong, wise, and creative as Jes. And I aspire to be the same for her. 


From Hurt & Alone: Jodie, I’ve been a pastor’s wife for a year now and my experience has been terrifying. Because I don’t fit into [the church’s existing] culture, I’ve barely made friends….My husband is great support, but my community cannot consist of just him, and that's what this feels like….I fully supported my husband and had no problem with him accepting his call; however, after experiencing what being a pastor's wife is like (granted, at ONE church, for a very short time thus far), I have told him I wish he would seek out another vocation, or at least dropped pastoring altogether and served in other ways. I want to be his cheerleader without getting tackled in the sideline. I know he wants this, and he feels like this is what God has ordered, but it's hurt me and left me anxious, depressed, and lonely. We had to move and leave our community where I felt we were both thriving spiritually. It's such a hard place to be in: wanting to support your husband, but knowing that this job affects you directly and in a way that's been really negative and exhausting although you yourself are not on payroll. How can we spouses deal with this? How can you deal with your husband having a job that affects you in every way but is something you're not interested in? Thanks so much!

Jodie: 

Hurt and Alone, I’m so glad you have freely expressed your feelings here. So many pastors’ wives share your pain; you are not alone! The very first thing you need to do is find authentic community. The key word here is authentic. It sounds like you aren’t finding that in your current church; it’s not uncommon for pastors and pastors’ spouses to have difficulty finding deep, safe friendships within their ministry setting. I’d recommend calling a pastor’s wife from a neighboring congregation or town. Connecting with other pastors’ spouses will help bring you out of isolation into a validating community that can directly empathize with your feelings. Some of my closest friends are outside of the church. 

Second, I’d recommend getting into therapy. Find a good counselor that you can process your feelings with. Also consider marriage counseling. I honestly believe that every single couple in ministry could benefit from the help of a good therapist. In therapy, you can explore the similarities and differences in your personalities, etc. The emotional demands of ministry are gargantuan; leading can be so depleting. Caring for your own soul and your own marriage need to be non-negotiable tenets of your journey. 

Lastly, I want you to know that experiencing feelings of loneliness and depression do not mean that you are being unsupportive of your husband. It’s not wrong or sinful to ask real, hard questions about your future together in ministry. Ministry isn’t something we should merely survive. You two can thrive, but it’s going to take a concerted effort on both of your parts to communicate honestly and extend grace to one another.  

 

From The Pink Superhero: What's the one thing you wish you knew before your spouse took their first call?

Jodie: 

I absolutely wish I knew how to set the expectations of others aside. Early in our marriage, when my husband was a newbie pastor, I often felt like a fish out of water. I wanted to be a “good” pastor’s wife, but felt so invisible and alone. I felt permanently cast in the shadow and didn’t know how to find authentic community. Then, I felt simultaneously guilty that I just couldn’t nail down the role. If I could go back and talk to my younger self 18 years ago, I would tell myself to honor that fish out of water feeling and embrace the gifts God had given me instead of the impossible expectations of others. I would tell myself that saying no was an act of worship and that my relationship with Jesus had nothing to do with my performance at church. I knew these truths 18 years ago, but I didn’t feel empowered to live them. I mostly feel empowered now. ☺

Jim: 

With Sundays out of the picture, when is our weekend? In other words, what is our plan to protect and value non-work time together? (Jes and I experienced this most in her first two years when I had a the weekend off and she was working every Saturdayand Sunday, one of the many reasons I switched to a job that allowed our our days off to overlap rather than pass in the night.)

***

A HUGE thank you to Jodie and Jim for responding to these questions with such candor, wisdom, and grace. Be sure to check out the Redefine Positive Project and Thirty Seconds or Less. 

Pastor Spouses/Partners: Do you feel pressure to fit into certain roles or meet unrealistic expectations? How do you and your spouse handle theological disagreements, parenting, church drama, and making a life outside of ministry? What's the one thing you wish you knew before your spouse took their first call? 

Check out the rest of our "Ask a..." series here

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