The church leader who doesn’t go to church

April 1st, 2019

Recently, The Christian Century published an article entitled, “I’m a ‘church leader’ who doesn’t really go to church,” written by the director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. In it, the author admits his lack of participation in a congregation and details the difficulty and awkwardness of finding a church after a period of being professionally and geographically unsettled. The article prompted quite a bit of blowback from congregational leaders on social media.

On one hand, I get it. I recognize that, for many people, life under late-stage capitalism is exhausting, and it can be hard to make corporate worship, let alone a real investment in a community, a priority when one has so little time and energy. There are days when I wish I could “skip” church for a bike ride or brunch with friends. On the other hand, as a priest and pastor, it is extremely frustrating to hear someone whose job is training future ministers, someone who is considered an “up-and-coming mover and shaker” in the church and who could use their gifts in service of a congregation, bemoan that they would rather spend Sunday morning with their New York Times app than go to church.

For some people, finding a church that is safe for them or supports their core values in terms of the leadership of all people or LGBTQ+-affirmation makes this process difficult. The author states that there are at least twenty-five Mainline Christian congregations in his town, but due to geography and the dominant Christian culture of the area, many have far fewer options. He quickly falls into the language of “church-shopping” (a phrase I despise for its consumerist underpinnings), mentioning the “convenience” of particular service times. Like an ecclesial Goldilocks, each congregation that the professor visits is too much or not enough.

Reading the article, I wondered what he would think about my congregation. Would he be turned off by the parishioners at coffee hour who stand just a little too close? What if I made a joke in a sermon that didn’t quite land or the lector stumbled over the readings? Would my church be too small or lack diversity? Would the worship times be convenient for him or would the music be too traditional?

While I know we can improve in any number of areas, I hope my congregation strikes the sweet spot of being welcoming but not desperate, inviting but not pushy, friendly for both families and single people. I also know that my congregation isn’t for everyone, but Sunday after Sunday, we gather together as a bunch of broken, messy people to worship God. These are the people I love, who I visit in the hospital, pray for, and who occasionally push my buttons. Being in the trenches of congregational ministry and managing personalities, expectations, and conflicts isn’t easy, but it is holy and life-giving for me.

It boggles my mind that an “up-and-coming church leader” cannot be involved in the particularities of an individual congregation. What authority do you have to train future leaders of these congregations as a seminary professor if your idea of the church is purely theoretical? And yet, few of the prominent figures in Christian culture, the ones with book contracts and vast social media followings, actually pastor congregations. It’s much easier to make pronouncements about hypothetical Christians in a hypothetical community than it is to do the hard work of being in relationship with those whom I disagree or dislike.

More fundamentally, our call as Christians is to worship God, which incidentally isn’t about my personal aesthetic preferences but about whether God is glorified. That’s not something you can do with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Whether or not I want to, whether or not I feel like it, part of the Christian vocation is to worship communally.

I hope that he is able to find a congregation where he feels comfortable worshipping and using his gifts in service of the church. I also hope that he can offer some grace to the leaders and members of the congregations he visits rather than looking for flaws. I believe that involvement in a congregation will make him a better professor and give integrity to his accomplishments as a leader in the wider church.

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