Pastor

Help Thou My Unbelief

LAST YEAR on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” I heard the story of Teresa MacBain, a United Methodist pastor who came to the conclusion she was an atheist. The situation was scary and awkward for her. Who could she tell? What would she do now for a living?

She wasn’t trained for any other occupation, but neither could she continue her double life of preaching and public praying while knowing she didn’t believe in any of it.

Lacking someone to confide in, MacBain secretly confessed to her iPhone, “Sometimes I think to myself: If I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of the sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.” Eventually, she left the ministry.

As I listened to MacBain’s interview, I empathized with her. After 30 years of serving as a Mennonite pastor, I often wonder whether I still believe the things I’ve always said I believed. My questions about God have become deeper, while my previous answers now sound shallow. The thought that I might not believe in God is frightening. It threatens my identity and worldview—not to mention my occupation. And yet I haven’t arrived at MacBain’s atheism. Instead, my doubts have been folded into my faith.

When I was 16 years old and discovered that several of my school friends had become atheists, I was racked with questions about God’s existence. I tried to resolve the issue by reading every book I could find on Christian apologetics. I piled up a mountain of highly dubious evidence and then spent the summer writing a 60-page defense of the Christian faith. But when I was finished, I made an awful discovery—I still had the same doubts. No amount of proof had made any difference at all.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

'From The Beginning:' Addressing the Roots of Sexual Violence in the Church

Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com
Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.

"From the beginning …" began my pastor, rising slowly from his armchair. With his next words, he broke my world apart. From the beginning, he had been attracted to me as a woman. From the beginning, his interest in me had been personal. He told me the reasons why, and then he said these words: "If we were both single, and if I weren't your pastor, we'd be going out to dinner." He paused a long beat. “And we’d see where it went from there." 

Were my pastor's words an act of sexual violence?

When we hear the words "sexual violence," we may envision a forcible rape or a sexual act with a person incapable of consent. Many of us would consider unwanted groping or uninvited embraces to be acts of sexual violence. Some of us would include "consensual" sex between persons of different rank, because we understand that power disparity makes meaningful consent impossible. But what about the manipulative behavior that gives rise to the delusion of consent? Was my pastor's not-quite-a-proposition an act of sexual violence? Could a lingering handshake, a compliment on spiritual gifts, or an offer of pastoral support be acts of sexual violence? Most of us would say no. And most of us would be missing the boat.

Tales of a Male 'Preacher's Wife'

MY WIFE IS a pastor. Specifically, she’s the senior pastor of a prominent church in downtown Portland, Ore. I’m on staff too, but only part-time, and she enjoys telling people she’s my boss. Technically, I answer to the church board, but people get a laugh about the reversal of “typical roles.”

I get my share of “preacher’s wife” jokes, to which I have a handful of rote responses. No, I don’t knit or make casseroles. No, I don’t play in the bell choir. Generally, the jokes are pretty gentle, but they all point to the reality that few of us will actually talk about: We see the traditional roles of women as less important than those of their male counterparts. And so, to see a man who works from home most of the time and takes the kids to school while his wife has the “high power” job brings everything from the man’s masculinity to his ambition into question.

But regardless of the teasing I get, Amy has it a lot worse. One time, when she was guest preaching at a church in Colorado, a tall man who appeared to be in his 60s came up to her after worship. “That was pretty good,” he said, smiling but not extending his hand, “for a girl.”

Amy and I planted a church in southern Colorado 10 years ago, and we actually kind of enjoyed watching people’s expectations get turned on end when they met us. A newcomer would walk in the doors of the church and almost always walk up to me and start asking questions about our congregation.

“Oh, you’re looking for the person in charge,” I’d say. “She’s over there.” Then would come the dropped jaws and the wordless stammers as they reconfigure everything they assumed walking through the door. Amy’s even had people stand up and walk out in the middle of worship when they realize she’s about to preach.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Blessed Fiction

Glorybound, by Jessie van Eerden. WordFarm.
A luminous debut novel that features two sisters shaped by family estrangement and holiness faith in a hard-scrabble West Virginia mining town.

Hold It 'Til It Hurts, by T. Geronimo Johnson. Coffee House Press.
This debut novel and 2013 PEN/Faulkner-award nominee follows an African-American combat vet in his search for his missing sibling, a journey tangled with the fallout of war and race.

The Mirrored World, by Debra Dean. Harper.
A reimagining of the life of an 18th century Russian saint, Xenia of St. Petersburg, set against the excesses of the royal court.

Benediction, by Kent Haruf. Knopf.
An elderly man in a small Colorado town receives a terminal diagnosis, and the intricacies of human community are revealed in the stories of the people who gather around him.

Pastors' Wives, by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. Plume/Penguin.
Inspired by reporting the author did as a former Time writer, this debut novel explores the stories of three women whose lives converge at a Southern megachurch.

Good Kings Bad Kings, by Susan Nussbaum. Algonquin.
This winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a look at life in a Chicago institution for adolescents with disabilities.

—Compiled by Julie Polter

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Imprisoned Iranian-American Pastor Gets Push from State Dept.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Photo courtesy U.S. State Department.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Photo courtesy U.S. State Department.

Secretary of State John Kerry is calling for the release of an Iranian-American minister from a Tehran prison, a welcome step for advocates who had accused the State Department of being “AWOL” on the case.

“I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for nearly six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Kerry said in a statement released on March 22.

“I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.”

Church Power!

In any genuine community ... self-interest and public interest are not at odds, but are two names for the same thing. —Andrew Delbanco

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING has been around for a long time—certainly long before 2008, when it became a household word during Barack Obama's rise to the presidency. Not that it is understood nowadays any more than before.

I thought I knew what community organizing was when I served as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and was introduced to a newly formed faith-based organizing project called Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) in San Bernardino, California. But I soon learned that community organizing had a different starting point, as well as a different methodology, than I thought.

As a pastor, I had always been concerned about challenging injustice. However, I came to understand that community organizing is less about taking on yet another good cause and more about the important work of building human community.

As such, community organizing is a perfect fit for religious congregations and clergy. It addresses social justice concerns in the larger community, putting democracy to work by giving voice to ordinary families. But more important, community organizing can strengthen the life of the congregation. And it can bring power to the vocation of the religious leader.

There are four building blocks to community organizing—values, relationships, power analysis, and self-interest.

Values. As I was being introduced to ICUC, I was also taking a continuing education course taught by Ched Myers on discipleship in the gospel of Mark. When he learned what our church was getting into, he threw out a challenge with an implied warning. You have no business getting into community organizing, he proposed, unless you ground everything you do in Bible study.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

The Case for Corporate Worship

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
An elderly congregation member attends a Sunday service in Ohio. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

I empathize with people fleeing the local church. Churches can be battlefields instead of harbors, pits of condemnation or politics rather than wells of living water.

But the endless search for something “new” has trumped the life-changing story the body of Christ has nurtured and passed on for 2,000 years. This transforming story is the story the churches enacted weekly in Word and Sacrament before they forgot their original vocation as shelters of truth, life, and light amidst lies, death, and darkness. There were four revealed ways Jesus was present at the center of their public gatherings. These ways have been lost in too many places but are waiting to be rediscovered. More on that in a moment.

A young woman, a house church attendee, told me she longs for solid pastoral guidance, a message prepared weekly by an authoritative teacher, for worship that places Jesus Christ at the exact center of a public space where everyone is welcome, a place where she can bring her disbelieving friends whose lives are not yet transformed by self-sacrificial Love, a place where they can speak openly and honestly about where their lives still remain isolated from a holy Goda place of worship that does not lean on any one person's (or her personal) understanding and articulation of the Gospel but on the collective wisdom of the body of Christ.

Pastors to Challenge IRS on Political Endorsements — and They'll Likely Win

LOS ANGELES — In a matter of days, some 1,400 American pastors are planning to break the law.

And they’re likely to get away with it.

As part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” on Oct. 7, religious leaders across the country will endorse political candidates — an act that flies in the face of Internal Revenue Service rules about what tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, can and cannot do.

The IRS says tax-exempt organizations, or what they refer to as a 501(c)(3), are prohibited from participating in partisan campaigning for or against political candidates. Yet, despite what’s in the rules, the agency continues to struggle to do anything about those who defy the law.

Though the regulation has been in place since 1954, in 2009, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota ruled the IRS no longer had the appropriate staff to investigate places of worship after a reorganization changed who in the agency had the authority to launch investigations.

New procedures for conducting church audits have been pending since 2009, which has left the IRS virtually impotent in conducting any kind of new investigations. The IRS did not respond to questions seeking comment.

From Shame to Grace

PASTOR T.C. RYAN spent 40 years haunted by the shadow life of compulsive sexual behavior. Despite the challenges, Ryan never gave up hope of trying to reach the fullest recovery. He tells his story in Ashamed No More.

Compulsive sexual behavior put Tiger Woods into the headlines and made him an object of ridicule, as it has for so many others. In telling his own story, Ryan tears back the curtain to reveal the fuller story of painful realities, challenges, and hopes for those faced with the daunting task of recovery from similar compulsions.

“Those who are not addicted to sex understandably assume that the addict at least experiences enjoyment from the sexual activity, but this is not the case,” Ryan writes.

As Ryan describes it, he was living a divided life. In one arena he was a capable and gifted pastor. In the other he was plagued by shame, self-loathing, and an inability to stop destructive behavior. His extensive explanation of the cycle of addiction, the lies he had come to believe from childhood, the role that therapy and other supportive measures played in his recovery, and his hopes for how the church can become the ultimate 12-step program make every chapter of this book essential.

Ryan explains the cycle of addiction, with each stage setting up the next: faulty core beliefs lead to impaired thinking, which then triggers the addiction cycle of preoccupation (being obsessed with escape), ritualization (routines for acting out), compulsive sexual behavior, and despair. This feeling of being “despicable,” where “the compulsive person [is] awash in despair, shame, and pain,” is unmanageable. It reinforces the starting point of faulty core beliefs and the cycle runs its course again in a slow downward spiral.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Church No More: Part 6 — Back to Church Again

"Going Home" by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners, 2012. All rights reserved.
"Going Home" by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners, 2012. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: This is the sixth and final installment of Presbyterian pastor Mark Sandlin's blog series "Church No More," chronicling his three-month sabbatical from church-going.

They say you can never go home again.

The thinking is that, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again necessarily will be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.

In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This coming Sunday (Sept. 2) will be my first Sunday back.

The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Tom Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again. It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly.

So, you can't go home again? Well, I'm going to try.

Pages

Subscribe