Pastors and the “F-Word”: A Conversation with J.R. Briggs

According to J.R. Briggs, “the elephant in the room for pastors is that many of us are afraid of failure, and we don’t feel as though there are safe spaces to talk openly about it.”  Which is why J.R. organized the Epic Fail Pastors Conference and why he authored one of the most important books I’ve read this summer, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. 

J.R. serves as Cultural Cultivator of The Renew Community a Jesus community for skeptics and dreamers in Lansdale, PA. He is the founder of Kairos Partnerships an initiative that partners with leaders, pastors and church planters during significant kairos moments in ministry. As part of his time with Kairos Partnerships, he serves on staff with The Ecclesia Network and Fresh Expressions U.S. and coaches leaders, pastors and church planters across the country.

I’ve long admired J.R.’s take on ministry, so it was honor to talk with him about what it means for pastors to serve with faithfulness, regardless of the outcome, in a culture that idolizes celebrity and success. I hope it will be an encouragement to all of you, but especially those of you in ministry. 

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RHE: First of all, thank you so much for this book. I know it’s not easy to write with such honesty and vulnerability about your own struggles and failures, but it’s such a gift to people who would otherwise feel alone in their experience. This has to be especially true for pastors, who are often held to impossibly high standards and for whom “success” can be especially hard to gauge. I think you’ve started a really important conversation here, and it took guts to do that. 

So, to start, tell us a little about the Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference. What gave you the idea to do that? And what was the first one like? 

J.R.B.: Thanks for your kind words. I do hope the conference, and now the book, can prompt honest and significant conversations among pastors (and truthfully, among all people) regarding failure and how we respond to it with hope, grace and freedom.

The Epic Fail Pastors Conference came about almost by accident. Previously, I was on staff at a large church in a very visible role. By all accounts, people would have believed I was “successful.” Then, God called my family out to plant a church with little resources and few people. It was an incredibly dark and painful season for me. The thoughts of failure were right in front of my face. 

During that time, I realized that most of the ministry conferences around the country were oriented for – and run by - “successful” pastors at “successful” churches. I found myself leaving these conference feeling either guilty that I wasn’t doing church “the right way” or like I couldn’t relate to the speakers and their context in any way. I am sure they were kind-hearted and loved the Lord deeply, but I wondered if what we were doing, whether we knew it or not, was worshipping at the altar of our American-defined ideal of success, only in the setting of a local church. 

Shortly thereafter, I wrote a satirical blog post suggesting that someone host an “Epic Fail Pastors Conference” where we put our “worst foot forward.” I wrote that instead of talking about our successes, the speakers should be required to only speak of their failures – and, to follow up, share how God showed up anyway in the midst of the failure. I suggested in the blog post that no speaker should be a pastor of a church larger than 200 people, that we should call our speakers “Experts on Failure,” and that there should be no green room, lanyards, merchandise tables or honoraria, and that we would end the event with communion. 

Ironically, the satirical idea took off. People contacted me from all over the country asking when and where we were hosting this counter-intuitive event. It shocked me. We had no serious plans to do so, but after talking about it with a few ministry friends, we decided to pull the trigger. We hosted our first event about four years ago in my community, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, in the upstairs of a gritty bar that used to be a church. It was a raw and beautiful experience of healing and grace. So beautiful, in fact, we felt we needed to steward this idea wisely and continue to host these spaces. We’ve hosted Epic Fail events around the country over the past few years and continue to do so. (For more, check out www.epicfailevents.com).


RHE: I have to say, the statistics from Chapter 2 of Fail shocked me. I had no idea how many pastors struggled with depression and frustration regarding their ministry roles. You write that 80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of their spouses) are discouraged in their ministry roles, that 40 percent say they have seriously considered leaving the pastorate in the past three months, and that 70 percent say they don’t have a single close friend. Those are some really astounding and sobering numbers. And yet, this reality is so rarely talked about—in church, at conferences, in books. Why do you think that is, and why is it important that we change that? Why must we talk about failure, (or the sense of failure), among ministers? 

J.R.B.: Yes, ministry can be brutal. One of the most sobering statistics I found in my research is that for every twenty pastors who enter the ministry only one will retire from ministry. The irony is that so many pastors think about failure, but so few have spaces to talk openly and courageously about it. As I’ve listened to the stories of numerous wounded and hurt pastors I’ve realized that the less we talk about failure the more we feel it, but the more we can talk about it the less we feel it. 

The biggest barrier to talking openly about failure (or the sense of failure) is fear. Pastors are always wondering, if I talk about this, will this cost me? Will it cost me my job? Will it hurt my family? How badly will my reputation be damaged if I share how I’m really feeling? Will people hold it against me? Will people be disappointed and leave my church? 

We have to talk about failure because if we don’t we perpetuate the façade that the pastor has it all together. Masks are readily available for pastors and when we refuse to be honest and go into hiding, we’re tempted to reach for a mask to give the impression we’re someone that we’re not. And there are numerous ornate ministry masks available to pastors. But when we put on the mask we put aside the cross. The irony is that we bear the message of grace, where Jesus says that no perfect people are allowed. Even though we preach grace from the pulpit – that we’re all messy, broken, sinful, spiritual high maintenance people – that doesn’t always get into our bloodstream. If we don’t talk about failure and brokenness in appropriate ways, we perpetuate the priority of religiosity, the very thing that Jesus came to put to death. If we perpetuate religiosity and refuse to embrace grace, we are hypocritical and unfaithful to our calling as ministers of the gospel. But when we model and embrace grace, it’s certainly messy, but it’s also incredibly beautiful and attractive to others around us.  

It’s important to state that pastors are in need of both wisdom and courage. Talking about our wounds, failures, sin and brokenness takes courage. It’s only when we’re vulnerable that we grow. But we also need to exhibit wisdom to know when, where, with whom and how much to share about our brokenness. Finding the right balance of wisdom and courage in addressing our brokenness is crucial.


RHE: I once wrote a post entitled, “Dear Pastors, Tell Us the Truth,” and was heartbroken by how many pastors responded to it by saying they would never feel comfortable being that honest with their congregations. Why are so many pastors afraid to tell their congregations the truth—about their fears, their doubts, their ideas, and their failures? 

J.R.B.: I remember your article well. It struck a chord because it was so refreshing to the hearts of many pastors. As I mentioned above, there’s a lot of fear of what it will cost pastors if they tell the truth. This inability and unwillingness to talk about fears, doubts, ideas and failures leads to isolation, performancism and loneliness. Being with many pastors as they tell me their story, one of the main words I would use to describe their lives is loneliness. The Evil One loves this. If you isolate the life of a pastor, all sorts of significant damage can be done. It’s healthy when the pastor needs a community as much as a community needs a pastor.


RHE: What are a few things parishioners can do differently to support and encourage their pastors better? 

J.R.B.: There are many I would suggest, but I’ll stick with three. 

The first is to never forget that pastors are people before they are pastors. The expectations churches often place on pastors can lead them to believe they have to be super-human. It is important to remember pastors have bad days, feel “off,” need a break, and need friends and safe spaces where they can let their hair down. When parishioners have this perspective it can be a gift for pastors and their families. Don’t ever forget that your pastor is in need of as much saving grace from Christ as you or anyone else in the church. When we forget this, we miss out on understanding the gospel and we set pastors up on pedestals; and when this happens it is dangerous for both the pastor and the church. 

Second, commit to regular prayer and ongoing encouragement of your pastor and his/her family. When people in our church tell me that they have committed to prayer for me, I tell them it is one of the best gifts they could give to our family. Pastors don’t always do it right or preach amazing sermons or respond in the most gracious way. Pray for encouragement for your pastor, pray they would have a deep intimacy with the Lord, a deep understanding of grace and protection from the Evil One. 

Lastly – and this may be more for the leaders or elders of the church – cultivate a culture that encourages rest, health and healing. Seldom do I meet well-rested leaders. Even more rare is a well-rested pastor. Make sure time is allotted for vacation and time away for their families. Require that your pastor practice Sabbath as a way of taking care of mind, body and soul, as well as modeling healthy rhythms for the congregation. Some churches I know pay for a spiritual director or a counselor for their pastors, not because they think their pastors are screwed up, but because they want to make sure there is healthy support in place since ministry can be brutal. I’m certainly not suggesting you pamper your pastor unnecessarily, but creating a culture that cares for your pastor ultimately leads to your pastor caring well for the congregation. 


RHE: How has our success-oriented culture and the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon within Christianity negatively affected everyday pastors? 

J.R.B.: The phrase “celebrity pastor” is a contradiction of terms, but it feels somewhat normal to us in our cultural context because the mindset is so rampant. Unfortunately, the Church in North America has been co-opted by the corporate business approach to success and efficiency. It wasn’t the corporate world forcing it’s way onto the Church; we brought it on ourselves. Because of that, the church now uses the same metrics as the world.  The psyche of the average pastor is concentrating on metrics that the world uses: bigger, better, more efficient, more influential, bigger platform, etc. 

More simply, we tend to measure our effectiveness as pastors on the three B’s: buildings, bodies and budget. If these three B’s are strong, we’re tempted to think, well then, we must be successful. Conversely, we think that if those are down, we must be failing. The problem is that this is dangerously different from the heart of Jesus and the kingdom he came to declare: small, on the margins, ordinary, obscure, focused on faithfulness and humility that requires dying to ourselves. What happens when we adopt the world’s way of counting is that we think more like spiritual managers and church entrepreneurs than shepherds and soul gardeners. When we manage people’s spiritual lives we can think of them as problems to be fixed, issues that need to be tweaked and a system to be fine-tuned. This is not ministry; people know it when it happens. They get the sense that the pastor is using them to accomplish his/her grand vision. 

I’ve shared this quote from Eugene Peterson (from the Introduction of his book Working the Angles) with dozens of pastors because it gets to the root of the issue at hand. It’s so important that I keep it tucked away in my Bible to remind me of my calling: 

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”


RHE: When we look at national trends, it becomes apparent that churches in the U.S. are indeed seeing an overall decline, and no denomination has been spared from that. It seems to me that this might provide a sort of death-and-resurrection moment for Christians—a death to the old ways of measuring impact by money, power, numbers, and influence and a resurrection into the ways of Jesus, where the focus is on the hard work of discipleship, healing, fellowship, etc. What does “success” look like for pastors at a time when the Church is changing so dramatically and when most can’t brag about impressive numbers? 

J.R.B.:  Many have asked me a similar question: “If it’s not about the three B’s, then what am I after?” As we study the gospels and learn of Jesus’ challenge for us to seek the kingdom first and teach others in the Way of Christ, we see the dominating posture is faithfulness. Jesus will never say, “Well done, my good and successful servant.” In some ways this is encouraging; in other ways, it means a more difficult road. Faithfulness is the basis for ministry.

In the book I mention four shifts we need to engage in as we think about a new way forward. The first shift is from product to process. Instead of focusing on the end product or on hard numbers, we focus on the journey. So much of what Jesus did was with people. Pastors are on a journey with together toward Jesus. 

The second shift is from prioritizing results to prioritizing relationships. When we focus primarily on results we exhibit a spiritual management posture, instead of ministry. When we’re rooted in trusting relationships with others centered in Jesus, the kingdom is present. It may not put pastors on a national speaking circuit, but is that the goal of ministry? 

The third shift is from a focus on numbers to focus on stories. When we focus on numbers we dehumanize people. When we focus on stories we give people dignity and value. It helps people know their part in the story and know how to live into that calling. 

And the fourth shift is a move away from efficiency and toward congruence. The faster we move toward progress we feel less of a need for relationships. I certainly am not suggesting we strive for inefficiency; instead, what we strive for is effectiveness - or, a better way to put it, fruitfulness. I love the word congruence. When things are congruent they jive. They fit. The parts work together as one. When the heart of a pastor – and the hearts of the people in a local church - is congruent with the heart of the Father, the kingdom is present. 

These shifts are messy and take sacrifice and a great amount of unlearning, but it’s what leads to freedom, faithfulness and obedience – which are at the heart of the gospel story we are called to boldly proclaim. 

*** 

Be sure to check out Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. And you can find J.R.’s blog here. 
 

 

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Church Stories: "Forgive them, Father"

'Sun, Son and dad...' photo (c) 2009, Nisha A - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The following post comes to us from the anonymous blogger behind Registered Runaway. It's one of the most important guest posts I've ever shared: 

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I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up without a dad.

Not just the physical absence of a father, but with a workaholic, all-too-serious sort who just so happens to have his name on your birth certificate. The jerk who chooses conference calls over chanting at a Twins game. The idol who forever promises a fishing trip that never happens. The drunk who just spent away your soccer money.

I have been so blessed.

See, my pops is the total package. If you think yours is better, you are wrong.

The most magical memories of my childhood consist of getting chased by him around the house, falling asleep while he yawned through Bernstein Bears, sitting securely in his lap as sirens rang. Beyond being the playmate of my siblings and me, he was always our biggest fan. Whether it was sports, music, school plays, or video games, he covered us in his confidence.

But, being an un-athletic son of a father who loves sports, my performance as a player was always a sensitive spot.

There was one time in particular....

I am a slow runner. Known this since I was little. Just an accepted fact of life. So, it makes perfect sense that in 5th grade, I signed up for track. The consequences of this courage were not fully realized until I faced my first meet.

There I was, waiting for the shot of the gun in my hurdles heat, looking right and left at the boys and girls who were gritting their teeth as if they had waited their whole lives for this moment.

Then,

Shot.

Hesitation.

First hurdle knocked.

Last in the pack.

Second down.

Third down.

Everyone is watching.

Across the line, all alone.

I think, in those seconds of slow-moving shame, an emotional instinct kicked in and I involuntarily looked up for my dad. Feeling like a failure, I imagined that maybe he would give me an “oh well” look or some sort of pity eyes. But the moment my eyes met his, I knew I had won something.

He was all smiles.

Thumbs up.

Laughing, not insultingly, but in a “way to finish!” way.

I smiled.

I laughed.

And forgot about failure.

He wears the cape better than most, and walks more humbly than I wish he would.

In the moments after I came out of the closet, that same dad swept me up in his arms. As I cried and cried, he whispered “I love you!” “I love YOU!” He was more than just the dad I needed him to be in that moment. He was more. He is more.

As these things commonly go in the post-closet period, we sought out resources as to what we should next. After much searching, a good friend who was heavily involved in the ex-gay crowd recommended that my parents, especially my dad, watch a video entitled “Homosexuality 101”. It’s a short, 20 minute show that can be accessed online.

Sitting in the family room with my older brother, I heard sniffling and staggering steps approaching me. It was my dad. He was weeping. He started telling me how sorry he was that he failed me as a father. He spoke of how he pressured me too much to succeed and how that probably created a distance between us and how there were so many unmentionable mistakes he made. When asked, I couldn’t get an answer as to what they were. He was heartbroken, and more miserable than I had ever seen him. I can’t even imagine what his thoughts were at that moment.

See, he had just watched a video that told him that the reason why a young man develops same-sex attractions is because his father never established a close relationship to his child at a young age. He did not express his love fully enough for the young boy in question to reciprocate, and in turn, trust him. The mystery of homosexuality could all be tied back to the dad who wasn’t there.

In layman’s terms: Dad, you screwed up. The pain your child feels is a direct result of your refusal to display a love that the child could believe in. You probably didn’t take him to enough hockey games, or ever confront a scraped knee with “rub some dirt in it.” You made yourself an enemy to your boy and now the consequences of your ineptitude have made him into a homo. Go sit in the corner and think about what you have done

Really?

This guy?

The daddy who kissed me on the head every night before I fell asleep and, without fail, told me he loved me every chance he got? The man who ended any argument with another reminder that he loved me? The guy who was always there? At every sports event? Every play? Every recital? Every trip? The dad who abandoned his job whenever I took ill? The father who rocked me in his arms at my most vulnerable moment?

There was never a single second (unless I was behaving horribly) that I ever,  ever felt like a disappointment to him or that I wasn’t loved by him. There has never been a deficiency in our relationship at all.

Despite the evidence of this theory being fully debunked and labeled a myth, the Church continues to call it Truth. And being a man of the Church, my dad bought it.

The paralyzing guilt of imaginary memories of running away from his paternal role has landed him in church-inflicted purgatory.

Even as I fight using reason, faith, the American Psychiatric Association, my mom, his friends, therapists and every piece of rational data out there, I have yet to fully uproot his convinced culpability. He has started to parse out fact from fiction, but the trauma of that video still haunts him.

And I don’t know why.

I don’t know why the church pedals reparative therapy as an answer to their theological dilemma, despite it resulting in countless suicides. I don’t know why they think it’s fit to equate gays to rapists and murderers. I don’t know why they say dads make kids gay.

I don’t know why they flog my father.

But I do know how I am to respond.

Even if it’s through clenched teeth.

 “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”

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Be sure to check out Registered Runaway.

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Church Stories: A Plea to Engage in Racial Reconciliation (by Grace Biskie)

Today I am pleased to welcome Grace Biskie to the blog for a guest post on the difficult topic of racial reconciliation. Grace serves with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as the Regional Coordinator of Black Campus Ministries in the Midwest. After twelve years in ministry, she is transitioning to a new role as Program Coordinator for a foundation serving high school students in NYC and Kalamazoo, MI. Grace is working on her first book, Detroit's Daughter, a memoir about surviving her father, her brother, abuse, racism, Christians, boys, and poverty, while growing up in Detroit. She is married to Dave, and raising two sons, Ransom, 6, and Rhys, 2. She loves speaking, writing, social networking, photography, fashion & swiss cake rolls. She hates horcruxes and human trafficking. You can follow her adventures in trying to lead a purposeful, grace-filled, beautiful life on her blog, Gabbing With Grace, or on Twitter.  

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Transient

I grew up in a home where my older, white brother called me a "stupid little nigger" more times than I can count, and where I countered with "ignorant, loser honkey!" more times than I care to admit. My brother had grown up in an all white neighborhood until White Flight swept through in a little under two years. He was thrust into being the only white kid among black kids who stole his bike and beat him up. Outnumbered on the streets, he took it out on me at home.

I learned from blacks, at a very early age, that whites were manipulative, selfish, always out for "their damn selves" and NOT to be trusted. I learned from whites, at a very early age, that blacks were violent, stupid, unacceptable human beings who were less important than themselves and most of all, "not safe." I learned these things from my family, my church, my friends’ parents, and my private, Christian school. The racism was across the board. It came not only from the "poor folks of Detroit,” but from the Christians, the Muslims, the poor, the rich, the educated, even the homeless. It seemed like everyone had a bad opinion about white, blacks, or Arabs.

Eventually, the racism swirling around me became a part of what I believed to be true about the world: a few whites were great, most were tolerable, and the rest deplorable. These “truths” were seared into my brain like a brand on a baby cow. I'd been branded with racism.

Things came to a head for me on September 11, when I blamed the events of the day entirely on whites. The more whites talked, cried, formed prayer circles and sang Kumbaya, the more a war raged in my heart against them. It doesn't matter who flew the planes, they were provoked! By white people!

Then God began a slow and gentle process of healing that started with acknowledging the pain and devastation whites had caused in my life growing up. After many years of prayer, journaling, therapy and relationships, I was delivered from years of racism—my own and the racism of others against me. And yes, I came to see the events of 9-11 much differently.

But this is who I am: I am racially, culturally, spiritually, physically, ethnically black AND white. As an American Christian trying to live in the tension, I am as screwed as it gets. If there was a club for confused mixed kids, I’d be captain, head of the Department for the Racially Insane. For shits and giggles, God brought me a white husband. I'm a biracial woman who identifies as African-American. I grew up in Detroit, among urban, working-class blacks while my white mother sent me to a suburban, lily white, private Christian school and a large, white Baptist Church who denied me baptism in 1987 for being "half-black." Later that year, they passed a vote in which blacks were allowed baptism and therefore membership. The pastor who vehemently fought for me and other blacks to become members was maligned by his elder board and fired. Later, he committed suicide.  

For all these reasons and more, I have been unable to disengage with the issues that plague black and white Christians in our country.* I've tried to disengage. Lord knows I've wanted to disengage. But I simply can't untangle myself from the racist web into which I was spun.. And it's for these same reasons I feel terribly sad when I watch whites disengage.

To not know African-American history is to disengage.

To attend a large white church and never ask how the church got there or why it's staying that way is to disengage.

To never admit, let alone assess, your power and privilege as a white American is to disengage.

To not seek to understand why blacks were (and are) so angry about cases like Trayvon Martin's is disengage.

To decide to live in a mostly white community with no thought as to why it feels safer or mandatory for your family is to disengage.

To not read widely about racial and ethnic issues in our country is to disengage.

To allow yourself to be in places where everyone looks like you 90% of the time is to disengage.

To raise your kids to be color blind is to disengage.

I don't toss that list out lightly. Nor do I present it with judgment or condemnation. I am not looking to set you on a point-of-no-return guilt trip. None of that from me. Please consider this an invitation for you to love me, your neighborTo disengage is to fail to love.

I have been truly loved by many white people, most of whom I work with while serving in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. When I feel loved and cared for by a white person it's because they've done their homework and tried to understand my perspective. They know that they can read twenty books a day, but until they actually build a real relationship with someone who sees life differently, they are never going to get it right.

The hard days are the ones when I interact with whites that think they have the whole issue all figured out. They are quick to defend their white privileges and quick to point out their black friends. They make assumptions, and ask me to represent all blacks by answering that age old question, "what are black people so mad about?" That's not what engaging looks like. That’s what verbal self defense looks like.

The problem with disengaging is that it's not what God intended for us. I believe God expressly asks us to love people who are different than us. He especially desires for us to love those who would be considered our enemies. Take a look at Revelation 21; we know how this ends: We live in that not-yet-but-all-ready-here Kingdom, where God will bring together every tribe, every tongue and every nation, all of us speaking our own language, wearing our own cultural garb, eating our good cultural food. I'm talking about the day when Jesus' redemption brings total shalom to all peoples, complete peace between all people and God, all people to all people. In this partay of ALL partay's, the Hutu’s and Tutsi's will have a glorious celebration together. That final picture includes African-Americans and white Americans together…with no funky attitude problems.

No under-the-breath judgments.

No wealth gap.

No opportunities stolen.

No lynchings.

No death.

No gang wars.

No tears.

No blame game.

No race cards to be pulled.

No "shit black people think (white people think) about black people" YouTube memes.

If this vision excites you, know that your engagement in pursuing peace and health between African-American and white Americans is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he told us to pray like him: Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

If this vision doesn't excite you, I might ask if you’re working toward building God's Kingdom at all.

I don't feel badly asking whites to engage on issues of racial reconciliation, because I'm asking you to be obedient. I'm asking you to play a deeper, fuller role in bringing about God's Kingdom. I'm asking you to follow me as I follow Jesus…right up to that cross. You don't need a Masters in urban planning or relocation into the heart of Detroit to have a shot at being a life-changing, Kingdom-building reconciler. Yes, those who have the power to change things systemically should. But the rest of us are regular Joes. If you find yourself paralyzed by lack of cataclysmic, life-altering options, take a deep breath. There are lots of ways

Here's one: How about starting by displacing yourself? Go somewhere where you are the only white person for miles. Attend a black church or go grocery shopping in an all black neighborhood. This one small step can work wonders. Displacement allows us to identify, understand, and walk in the shoes of something African-Americans face nearly everyday in America. Facing a little fear under the tush never killed anybody.

Read stuff. Two of my favorite books include Being White: Finding our Place in a Multi-Ethnic World by Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp, and More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel by Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice.

My relationships with whites have been beautiful and ugly and everything in between. The man who caused me the most pain, my white brother, was redeemed by my husband, a white man who has become my knight in shining armor in all things racially related. I have watched him read widely and displace time and time again in order for the gospel to move forward among black college students when no one else is willing to "go there." I’ve seen this journey cause him tremendous pain, but I’ve also seen it lead him to the greatest blessings of his life. It's not just him, though. I’ve witnessed many other whites seek to understand and engage, when I know they could walk away. I have been flabbergasted by white colleagues within InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who have time and again sacrificed in little and gigantic ways to bring others to the table. I came to the Lord through InterVarsity as a college student; being a part of reconciling whites to blacks and blacks to whites is my heritage, my honor and my hope.

Trust me, I understand your desire to disengage, to worry about many other things in life. But I need you. The world needs you. African-Americans need you. And whether you like it, know it, accept it, or have yet to fully live it, you need African-Americans.

***

Tell me, have you ever been invited by an African-American Christian to think more deeply about these issues? What do you see as the major problems the Church needs to address regarding the division between African-American and white Christians? What are your joys and triumphs in pursuing racial reconciliation between white Americans and African-Americans?

*Note: I acknowledge there are many other racial and ethnic issues to be addressed by the Church regarding ethnic groups living in the U.S. However, I am primarily speaking to the issue I know and live while trying to respect the fact that only so many things can be discussed in one blog post. Please know I am not trying to ignore the issues that exist for our Asian-American, Latino-American, Native American, etc. brothers and sisters in Christ. I acknowledge that much more could be said on any number of issues. 

***

See our other church stories:

Church Stories: Embracing Faith as an Aspie (by Erin Thomas) 
Church Stories: Cursed Creed (by David Henson) 
Church stories: Facing my brother’s addiction (by Rebecca Howard) 

Church Stories: Being the Change We (by J.R. Goudeau)

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Church Stories: Embracing Faith as an Aspie (by Erin Thomas)

What’s it like to live with Asperger's Syndrome in the Church? Today we find out from the talented Erin Thomas. Erin is a self-styled mix-up. Advocating for the end of the modern slave trade, she hopes to open a small intentional community retreat for exploited youth in Canada. Her blog, The Underground Railroad, is a small rag dealing with human trafficking and other justice issues. When she’s not writing creative non-fiction, short stories, and poetry, Erin spends her time working on her Masters of Arts in Urban Studies online through Eastern University, fighting for the last carrot in the house with her two rabbits, Bug and Sage, and enjoying mentoring time with local youth both in and out of church settings.

I hope you learn as much from her perspective as I did! 

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Transient

It’s my faith that marks me as peculiar.

Oh I see the looks when I stand off by myself—(thou shalt not interact unless thou art commanded to come)—but my interpretation skills can be a little off, so that group of women at church I see as a minefield might actually want me to come and chat. Seriously? This is making friends? You’ve got to be kidding me.

I tremble at night when my synesthetic mind brings to life eternal torture… damnation… how the flames of Hades are seven times hotter than the hottest fire on Earth – seven times! I learned these things during a week of Bible camp when I was nine. But I played by my unwritten rules—(thou shalt believe the Bible as it is taught so thou shalt avoid God’s eternal wrath). The night terrors began soon after; the fixation on paganism, Satanism and witchcraft after that; and the hallucinations by the time I was twelve—(thou shalt believe what thou perceiveth with thy senses; they are measurable references proving truth). 

Break the rules?

Never!

To ask an Aspie to break her rules would be to ask her to stop breathing. Often, not even she knows her own rules, much less the game being played.  And on a daily basis, Christianity is most definitely a game – and the players play for the win, or burn in hell. There is no second place. Evangelism is critical, with the blood of the unredeemed on our heads—(if they die because I have not shared the Gospel, I am to blame.)

Make relationships.

Build relationships.

Cultivate relationships.

Nurture relationships.

Initiate relationships.

No matter which way you play it, Christianity is a social extrovert’s game and no amount of self-help preaching of “accept thyself” will change that—(thou shalt shake every hand of every person entering the church building in order to be a devout Christian).

Do they know? Do they know that small talk is next to impossible for me?

Oh sure, I want to know about your views of social justice within the first five minutes of meeting you, but your name? I will remember it about as easily as your face—for shame! A good Christian knows names and faces so people always feel welcome. 

Do people know how long it takes me to recharge after social functions?

Do they understand the guilt and shame inherent to losing the Christian game day after day?

Do they perceive the confusion they cause by saying “You don’t look like someone with Asperger’s…”, or “everything you experience, NTs go through too. You’re only labeling attention-seeking behavior with a flavor-of-the-month name”, and “Jesus has the power to heal your mental illness.”

1. Anyone who knows anything about the autism spectrum knows that like NTs, no two Aspies are exactly alike,

2. If I was seeking attention, I would strip naked in a bar on $3 Mojita Night; besides, I had never even heard of Asperger’s Syndrome until my diagnosis, and,

3. Asperger’s Syndrome is not a mental illness. It’s a neurobiological condition, a PDD – Pervasive Developmental Disorder. We are born this way. We can learn to be socially bilingual, but we are out of the spectrum of “norm” (who’s Norm?). Even so, we are your engineers, inventors, poets, artists and dreamers. The need for support is great, but the need for healing as Christianity defines healing isn’t.

We Aspies are notorious for literal thinking – taking at face value what is said, read or written. Thus, it is often recommended that we not participate in organized faith practices because we are too vulnerable to depression, severe anxiety, and even suicidal ideation because of faith-based guilt.

Maybe if my parents had known this growing up, things might have been different (not that they preached the hell-&-damnation Gospel, despite taking us children to evangelical churches). I was clinically diagnosed when I was 30 years old, after months of investigation, careful study, and gentle probing.

Yet faith had already literally rooted itself into my life. Was I now to let go?

No.

As logical as it seems to stay away from teachings that cause such debilitating fear (so much so that the thirteen-year-old me created escape plans for the inevitable AntiChrist Army that would march down our street to shoot me after the rest of my family had successfully been raptured), it would be even less logical to believe that God would create a group of strange people created to be forever distanced from Jesus because we can’t know Him in the right way. 

Processing the world differently, stilting about awkwardly in social groups, saying things at the wrong times or not saying anything at all can be hallmarks of being an Aspie. However, my three-dimensional visions of faith in Jesus Christ stamp me as more odd than any PDD. 

Want to support an Aspie in faith? Stop playing the game. We want to be a part of family, but for that to happen, we need to help create new rules. Who knows? Your weirdness might find a home in the Aspie world.

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Church Stories: Cursed Creed by David Henson

Today I am thrilled to share a beautiful and challenging guest post from my friend David Henson.  

David  received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalist. He is currently a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and writing his first book.  David is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student. He blogs here, and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter. He enjoys hearing from anyone who reads his work, especially, but not exclusively, if they like it.

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Transient

When my faith foundered, the voices echoing the Nicene Creed in the cavernous halls of an ornate Episcopal church in Alabama caught me. Buoyed by the voices of the saints past and present in that parish, I felt my faith picked up at the seams and pinned to angels who carried me over canyons of doubt. It was as if, unable to reach toward heaven on my own, the confident voices of those around me raised my own voice like a marionette doll, awkward, but vaguely human.

The Creed saved my faith. It saved me.

Now, though, I wonder how many of those strong voices that I felt had carried me in my weakness relied on me just the same. And, maybe, this is the true beauty of the Creed, not that all those past and present raised their voices in utter faith and bold assurance of things unseen. Perhaps it is in the feeble offerings of each voice, giving strength to the crippled, cracked cries of the next, that the Creed's true power lies. That every time we say the Creed together, we create our faith together, spinning it out of the thin, stained light, the musty, moth-eaten faith of our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters.

How ephemeral this faith is, shimmering on quivering voices, threatening to disappear with its images of God and to leave behind only the smell of stale coffee breath and peppermint gum.

When we affirm our faith with the Creed, are we really simply affirming our faith in the faith of others, past, present and future? 
Yet, out of such a beautiful, farcical facade, faith and community can be created, like gold from straw.

Currently, there is a popular video about the Nicene Creed circulating in my social media circles that implores Christians not to be "robots" when they say Creed, but rather to make it "real," whatever that means. I think it's a well meaning, but ultimately misguided, attempt to make the Creed relevant and interesting to today's generation. Most troubling, the video edits the Nicene  Creed's most important word, changing "We believe" into "I believe." In effect, it transforms a communal creed whose meaning is built upon the historic confession of Christians for centuries into a personal one whose meaning is built upon how an individual feels about that confession at any given moment. It robs the Nicene Creed of its power and authority and forces it to submit to latent individualism.

But the Nicene Creed transcends individual belief. It transcends my doubt and your doubt, our skepticism and our disbelief because it is dependent on something much greater than the whims of our conflicted and troubled minds.

Some days, the Nicene Creed is transcendent. On other days, there's not much left in the it that I believe as I once did, with the conviction that would make it "real" as the video implores. It's not so much that I've dismantled the deep mysterious myths and stories of the virgin birth, the resurrection, the one baptism for forgiveness of sins, the existence of one holy, catholic and apostolic faith. Rather it's that I have realized that these true mysteries of the Christian faith have little to do with how I feel about the content of such stories. On those days when I disbelieve, I proudly proclaim I am nothing more than a robot mumbling through the Creed and allowing the voices of the saints past, present and future wash over me, like a salve, not to restore my faith in belief, but my faith in community. In these moments, I am much more aware that the community of the church is so much more than the sacred stories that bind us together. And, that somewhere between the two— my faith and the historic faith — lies something holy.

It is as fragile as decaying lace. And as beautiful, too.

But it is a beauty tinged with a curse. As the pious above chant of the God begotten of Light, the unfaithful faithful call out in ragged whispers their own stories of Inquisitions, of lost political battles at important councils of faith, of unjust executions in the name of the Christ and of excommunications to shore up power. And, then, there are the ones who could not manage to say some form of the Creed, or say it convincingly enough, and found themselves on the coal-black end of a burning stake. They are God's children, exiled by the Creed, Christians made non-Christian when the faith was forced through the sieve of statecraft. They are our forefathers and mothers of the faith, crucified for unity, now calling out for resurrection.

The recent video sanctimoniously reminds viewers that "some saints have sacrificed their lives in defense of this Creed." We would do well to remember how many heretics — real or imagined — were made to sacrifice their own lives because of it, too.

So, I mumble the Creed with reluctant lips and an eager heart, begging forgiveness for it even as I am healed by it.

Still, I confess it every Sunday, regardless of how real it seems, because what itrepresents — the faith of the historic church — is so much larger than my feelings about.

The Creed saved my faith, completely, and it continues to as I limp along the path of Christ. But I can't help but feel that sometimes, it damns me just as fully.

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.