It was December of 2000, but I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday.
It was a few days after Christmas during my senior year of college. I was quite nervous, and I wondered how my friends and family would react.
How would my basketball teammates respond? Would my roommates treat me differently? And of course, what about my girlfriend? She had no idea our relationship would take such a dramatic turn.
I could hide no longer. I had to be honest with who I was. And so, after a great deal of delay and long nights of nervous planning, I finally decided to share what I had been keeping secret.
Beginning with my girlfriend, then my parents, brother, sister, and eventually friends, roommates, and teammates, I shared the news: After a significant amount of prayer and discernment, I was no longer planning to attend law school following college graduation, but instead, I wanted to attend seminary in order to become an ordained Lutheran pastor.
As to be expected, I received mixed reactions.
My parents were confused and surprised, as they – like most people – had not perceived me as “religious”," especially not to the point of pursuing ordination. Nevertheless, they accepted the news with delight and affirmation.
In addition, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) was wonderfully supportive. So was my brother, sister, and closest friends.
On the other hand, some others were not sure how to react. My friends – mostly uninterested in religion – wondered about future plans. Basketball teammates were a bit uneasy. And even the campus priest and a few professors had an assortment of reactions. While a number of people were anxious and apprehensive, those within my closest circle of friends accepted the announcement with open arms.
I continue to thank God for such a wonderful web of support.
What I remember most about those final months of university was that nearly every conversation was focused on various plans for the future. And so, my surprise announcement to attend seminary was discussed frequently, and the reactions were delightfully diverse.
While some would respond with awkward pleasantries, I was fascinated with how many countered with their own experiences of religion. Over and over again, whether it was the quiet of a library or loud chaos of weekend house parties, young women and men would explain their fascination and questions surrounding God, opinions about faith, and reasons for why they do (or do not) affiliate with a religious tradition.
It was during these times that I actively listened as much as possible, for most of my conversation partners had not discussed religion in a long time. Through it all, the various interactions about faith and religion usually ended with mutual affirmation, a strong sense of respect, and a feeling that previously held assumptions were reconsidered and/or removed. It was breathtaking.
As I reflect upon the initial announcement of my path to attend seminary, I believe one of the greatest gifts I have received is the consistent companionship of those who are unaffiliated with any religious tradition. While I have served as an ordained pastor for over six years, many of my personal interactions are with those who fall within the 20 percent of U.S. citizens who are “religiously unaffiliated," and while such individuals are in no way hostile, their frustrations and insights serve as a significant voice to inform the ways that I serve as a religious leader.
Through it all, because pastors are often surrounded with a choir of like-minded believers, one of the most important lessons I have learned through my friendships is to keep hearing the “big questions” that are too often left unconsidered.
While many are alarmed by the decline of religious affiliation in the USA, I believe the so-called “nones” are in many ways a blessing to the future of religion. While I will always appreciate the important insights gathered from fellow Christians and Lutheran companions, over the years I also have learned a great deal from those who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or affiliated with “no religious in particular”.
While I may not always agree with the views presented to me, I believe that God works wonders when people come together in a genuine manner to listen, learn, and consider ways to confirm our connectedness and seek creative methods to bring about common priorities. In the end, what is often realized through such interactions is that God is much greater than any of the ideological limits we attempt to employ, and that God’s love is far more comprehensive than anything we can possibly comprehend.
As I write this reflection, there are numerous women and men who continue to wrestle with massive questions surrounding spirituality, faith, diverse concepts of God, and the ever-changing role of religion in the 21st century. I pray for such individuals, for in all reality I continue to consider myself one of them.
While I thank God for the opportunity to serve as a Lutheran pastor, and I praise God for the incredible congregation I now serve, I believe that faith in Jesus requires us to keep hearing the “big questions” surrounding who God is, what God does, and how God works through religious communities in our incredibly complicated world.
Some folks would rather have a pastor who declares total certainty on all things religious, but I believe it is those who proclaim absolute knowledge that often create the most damage, and thus, I would rather be a fellow sojourner on the journey than someone who falsely claims to have already experienced the destination.
I thank God for all the amazing women and men – regardless of their religious affiliation – who have accompanied me on the journey of faith to this point in my life, and as I continue to “come out” within new circles of “nones," I pray for God to keep moving each and every one of us – regardless of religious affiliation – toward a daring embodiment of love, peace, grace, and reconciliation throughout the world.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).