Lonely the Boat: The Urgency of Caring Well for Weary and Isolated Church Leaders

Many occupations have borne particularly heavy weight througout the pandemic.

Medical professionals were in harm’s way every single day.

Educators and educational staff had to accommodate the risks and challenges of maintaining the work of education in new and unusually demanding settings.

Restaurant owners, staff, and employees faced uncertainties and, in many cases, financial crisis. 

Political leaders had to deal with the insults and accusations of those who often assumed the very worst about their motives.

Workers in many different professions who were not given the option of working from home had to deal with the stress and struggle of managing a work schedule while worrying daily about their exposure to the pandemic.

Even as I type these words, I pray for those I know (and those I do not know) who, for the last 16 months, have carried the heavy vocational weight that I am describing. I hope that my prayers, and the prayers of many others, become conduits by which God’s healing and sustaining grace might enter their lives.

An often overlooked segment of the workforce in the conversation about pandemic-related burdens is the segment composed of those who work in faith communities—clergy leaders and staff members—many of whom are weary with the challenges of caring for the people they serve, protecting the most vulnerable in their communities, and processing the anger of those who disagree with their leadership decisions or their faith community’s response to the pandemic. Leaders in all faith communities (Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, to name the primary American religious affiliations) have faced unique and painful struggles over this last year-and-a half. As a Christian pastor myself, and a United Methodist pastor in particular, I see and hear evidence every day of this struggle and its significant impact.

I am what my denomination calls a District Superintendent, meaning that I am not currently serving a local church. Instead, I provide oversight to the 77 churches and 61 clergy (active and retired) of the district that I superintend. As I tell my clergy frequently, I still do not know what it means to pastor a local church during a time of pandemic, since I have never had to do that. Throughout the last 16 months, however, I have listened attentively to the stories of the clergy alongside whom I serve. I have heard them describe the anguish of not being able to pray at the hospital bedside of someone who was dying; of not being able to visit their homebound parishioners who have felt isolated and afraid; of having to deal with the rage of those who believed that the church was either overreacting or underreacting to the pandemic; and of having to steward the pressures of an expanded online ministry while, at the same time, adjusting to a substantial reduction in congregational giving. 

Said one of my clergy recently, “these last 16 months have been the longest decade I have ever experienced.”

In a recent article written by Bob Smietana for “Religion News Service” (May 7, 2021), Smietana describes the experience of several clergy, including Jeff Weddle and Brandon Cox:

Jeff Weddle, a 46-year-old, wise-cracking, self-deprecating, Bible-loving, self-described ‘failing pastor’ from Wisconsin, was already thinking of leaving the ministry before COVID and the 2020 election. He was, as he put it, fed up with church life after two decades as a pastor.

Then, what he called ‘the stupid’—feuds about politics and the pandemic—put him over the edge. People at church seemed more concerned about the latest social media dustup and online conspiracy theories—one church member called him the antichrist for his views on COVID—than in learning about the Bible. Sunday mornings had become filled with dread over what could go wrong next. He eventually decided, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ Weddle stepped down as pastor, walked out the door and hasn’t looked back…

For Brandon Cox, serving as a pastor had been a joy until last year. In 2011, Cox and his wife, Angie, had started a new church in Bentonville, Arkansas, called Grace Hills. ‘Up until 2020, we had a fantastic time,’ Cox, 46, told Religion News Service in a phone interview. The trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election and the racial reckoning in response to the death of George Floyd hit like a ‘wrecking ball.’ Grace Hills shut down in-person worship at the beginning of the pandemic, which prompted people to leave. More left when the church reopened and required masks. When Cox and a Black pastor preached a Sunday sermon together after Floyd’s death and said that yes, Black lives matter, that caused more turmoil. No matter what Cox did, someone was angry. ‘It was sort of relentless,’ said Cox, who stepped down as pastor at Grace Hill at the end of April. ‘My wife and I just found ourselves in the place of exhaustion.’ Cox talked to RNS nine days after his last Sunday as a pastor and said he hasn’t given up on Christianity—he hopes to find a new church to attend in the coming months—but pastoral ministry is no longer for him.

While neither Weddle or Cox is United Methodist, their vocational struggles compare to many that I have heard described by my United Methodist colleagues in recent months. As clergy have attempted to speak words about racial justice as it relates to the Gospel, they have often faced the angry accusation of being too “political.” As clergy have committed themselves to helping their churches adhere to CDC guidelines, they have often dealt with the harsh resistance—and even departure—of those who believe that that the pandemic is nothing more than an exaggerated flu undergirded by a political narrative. Add to these dynamics the ongoing conversation about the possibility of a denominational split over human sexuality, along with the continuing demands of everyday ministry (which never go away), and the end result is a pervasive weariness among church leaders (lay and clergy) who, on some days, struggle to find their voice and place in a setting that may no longer feel hospitable to them.

Perhaps some of you can relate to what I have described. I know that I can.

I am not suggesting, of course, that clergy and church leaders do not make their share of mistakes—talking when they need to be listening; pushing when they need to be collaborating; weaponizing the pulpit instead of speaking the truth in love. Books could be written about the mistakes I have made over the course of 32 years of ministry. 

Still, mistakes and all, my heart is all in for clergy and church leaders and for the ministry they offer. They are my mentors and guides—my devoted colleagues and my spiritual heroes. Most often, they are the ones who remind me of what it means to be a pastor—and a Christian—when I am tempted to forget. They stand with their congregations in good times and bad, helping their people to know that the grace of Jesus covers all of it and that none of it goes wasted. 

I believe in them.

I trust them.

I pray for them.

I love them.

And, I know that many of them are hurting—hurting in the way that many church leaders are hurting. In fact, according to a recent survey of Protestant pastors by the Barna Group, 29 percent of those clergy surveyed said they gave serious consideration to quitting full time ministry within the last year.

Given this reality, what might be done? How can those of us who are part of the church better the situation?

While there are no formulaic or definitive responses to such questions, I feel compelled to offer these words of encouragement to congregations in the hope that they will be instructive:

  • Be sensitive to the fact that your clergy and church staff (if you have a church staff) have been carrying particularly heavy burdens during this past year, and allow that sensitivity to soften your spirit toward their leadership.
  • Offer spoken, written, personal, and public words of affirmation and support to your clergy and church leaders, especially since such words are nothing short of life-giving to the hurting spirits of weary leaders.
  • Make certain that your support of your clergy and church leaders is vocal and consistent, since the frequent criticisms and resistance they face are also vocal and consistent.
  • Resist all temptations to sabotage or undermine the leadership of your clergy and church leaders. Instead, do all in your power to help them to be the best leaders they can be.
  • Exhort your clergy and church leaders to practice good self-care, encouraging them to devote substantial energy to their primary relationships, to nurture their own spiritual and physical health, and to guard their time away from the church.
  • Bless your clergy and church leaders with tangible expressions of your gratitude and support. For example, consider providing a night out at a nearby restaurant; or a weekend at an area hotel or retreat center; or an extra Sunday off.
  • If your pastor and church leaders ever make a decision or share a heartfelt conviction that challenges your perspective or with which you disagree, allow the energy of that disagreement to inspire dialogue instead of rebellion, relationship instead of rancor, and a spirit of “moving toward” instead of a spirit of “turning away.” 
  • Listen to the hearts of your church’s leaders, just as you expect them to listen to your heart. Take the relational risk of asking them questions that move the conversation beyond the sharing of information and into the sacred territory of soul care. Come alongside them in a way that honors their personhood and their struggle and not simply their function.
  • Pray for your pastor and church leaders, believing that your prayer will become an instrument through which God will both encourage your leaders and soften your own heart toward them.
  • And, finally, be intentional about reminding your clergy and church leaders that the church, the precious Bride of Christ, is worth the struggle, since there will be many things that tempt them to believe that it might not be.

A pastor emailed this to me recently: “Eric, one of my parishioners took me out to lunch last week—not to complain; not to chastise me for all the mistakes I’ve made; not to rebuke me for my wrong opinions…But just to pray for me over some good food, to tell me that he loved me and appreciated my ministry, and to ask me how it is with my soul…To tell you the truth, it felt like Communion.”

I am inviting you to experience a more frequent “Communion” with your clergy and church leaders. They are hungering for it, probably more than you—or they—even realize.

America’s Cancelation Policy: Reflections on ‘Cancel Culture’ and the Church’s Relationship to It

The voices are loud. Demanding. Angry. And often unnuanced.

“This ‘cancel culture’ has to stop! If something offends you, then just don’t listen to it! Or don’t watch it! Or don’t read it!”

Other loud voices emerge from a different portion of the philosophical spectrum:

“This isn’t about ‘cancel culture!’ This is about correcting wrongs that we have tolerated for far too long!”

As people entrench themselves in both intensified anger and fortified viewpoints, accusations and presuppositions often begin to take priority over nuanced discernment. One group asserts that a portion of its history is being taken away. Another declares the moral high ground en route to what it perceives to be a nobler future. The end result is a lingering fracture that no doctor can heal (not even Dr. Seuss).

Some respond to the fracture with defensiveness or territorialism. Others with dismissiveness. Still others with retaliatory ridicule and an eagerness to belittle perspectives that run counter to their own. In the often complex and sometimes confounding sociological maelstrom and philosophical commotion, faith communities (like the church) have a unique opportunity both to speak a countercultural message and to model the kind of distinctive priorities that bear witness to the theological narrative by which they are endeavoring to live. Sadly, instead of incarnating a different way, the church too often settles for one of the viewpoints handed to it by a divided culture, the segments of which are all too eager to have faith communities on their side.

So where does that leave the church? What sense might the church make of the “cancel culture” debate? And how might the church respond to it in a manner that reflects the priorities of Jesus, a commitment to justice, an appreciation of history and its complexity, and a vision for our nation’s integrity?

While I can offer no definitive answers, I am led to believe that the church’s navigation of the current territory will require the continued consideration of these practical and theological convictions:

Conviction #1: The work of “canceling,” even when deemed morally necessary, will always illuminate both the noteworthy inconsistencies of the cancelation process and the inherent hypocrisies of those claiming to be its overseers.

Critics of “cancel culture” rightly point out that decisions about who or what gets canceled (and who or what does not) are often subject to the inconsistent priorities and proclivities of an erratic culture and its flawed arbiters. Racism is rightly condemned, but by a nation built largely upon the back of slavery. Misogyny is rightly decried, but by a culture that often sexualizes even its children and youth. Intolerance is rightly rebuked, but often by the intolerant. These manifestations of moral inconsistency and hypocrisy do not in any way justify an abandonment of public moral censuring. They do, however, elucidate a shared fallenness that should, at the very least, inspire both intensified caution and a resistance to weaponized sanctimony when it comes to the activity of public condemnation. To borrow the imagery of Jesus, the ones who endeavor to cancel, irrespective of their sense of moral rightness, do well to recognize the “plank” in their own personal histories, even as they endeavor to remove the offending “speck” from a variety of different eyes.

Conviction #2: At its worst, public rebuke becomes the moral posturing of a nation seeking to castigate a convenient scapegoat. At its best, such rebuke becomes a nation’s rightful rejection of that which we tolerate or accommodate only at our own moral peril. 

The challenge for the church is to bring to the conversation about public condemnation the kind of steady critical thinking that distinguishes between the pursuit of justice and the demonization of dissenting voices. Only then can the church’s people move beyond image management and virtue signaling in order to add their hearts, voices, and energies to the complex and critical work of helping our nation’s narrative to reflect the truth of who we have been, the reality of who we are, and the vision of who we aspire to be.

Conviction #3: When there is a public denunciation of something or someone based upon a general moral consensus, the church’s most Christ-honoring response is to choose patient attentiveness instead of cynicism and to practice repentance instead of deflection.

A common criticism of “cancel culture” is that it focuses on all the wrong things. “How can people possibly worry about cartoons and a handful of Dr. Seuss books,” the argument goes, “when popular musicians are free to render highly sexualized performances with sexually graphic lyrics at the televised Grammy Awards?” Such deflection illuminates both the complexity of cultural cancelation and the strong disagreement that exists over its priorities. The church would do well to remember, however, that repentance is not a resource that becomes depleted with frequent usage. Rather, repentance is a way of life that makes redemptive room for all the wrongs that demand correction and all the distortions that demand reconfiguration. To put it another way, the church’s people must not allow the current ABSENCE of repentance over some issues to harden their hearts to the current PRESENCE of repentance over other issues. Disagreements about what requires repentance will certainly continue. The church, however, reflects the heart of Jesus most vibrantly when it joins the work of repentance wherever it is occurring instead of belittling that work for not yet finding expression in other places.

Conviction #4: In a climate of “cancel culture,” the church is called to elevate the conversation by becoming more fluent in its own unique and redemptive theological language.

The culture’s emphasis on “cancelation” becomes an opportunity for the church to reengage the deep rhythms of confession, repentance, rebirth, justification, and sanctification. When the culture traffics in the ethos of punishment, the church articulates afresh the importance of social holiness, the urgency of correcting injustice, and the moral necessity of taking responsibility for one’s behavior and being held accountable for its consequences. When the culture demands retribution, the church calls for transformation. And when the culture labels a soul irredeemable, the church tells the old, old story of a grace in which, mercifully, a soul’s cancelation is simply not an option.

Conviction #5: “Cancel culture” has the potential to become either a toxic methodology by which to ruin the lives of identified opponents or a means of refinement that helps to purify the cultural air.

Where publicized denunciation is weaponized without accountability—where it becomes, in other words, less of a prophetic denunciation of wrongdoing and more of a calculated effort to silence all dissent and incapacitate all dissenters, the church has a moral responsibility to name the harm being caused, to advocate for the ones harmed, and to work toward a just rectification. On the other hand, where such denunciation reflects a nation’s earnest and disciplined journey of sanctification, the church can join the effort rightly, since sanctification is a central and beautiful theme in the church’s own grand story.

The convictions that I have enumerated here reflect my belief that “cancel culture” need not be conceptualized or treated as the church’s enemy. I am more inclined to look upon it as the imperfect and inconsistent methodology of a culture that is seeking to clarify its ever-expanding vision for what it wants to be and what it does not want to be—what it wishes to elevate and repudiate. Naturally, the church cannot expect a complete alignment between its priorities and the culture’s when it comes to the shared work of public remonstration and moral correction. I am convinced, however, that prayerful and consistent scrutiny will illuminate far more common ground than one might at first assume—as though God is steadily at work to bring both the church and the world into the kind of salvific symbiosis that moves the entirety of creation toward the redemption for which it groans. 

Someone said to me recently, “But what if ‘cancel culture’ tries to cancel the church?”

I offered the only response that came to me in the moment.

“Someone already tried to cancel the church two-thousand years ago. The result was an empty tomb, a ‘Hallelujah’ that still resonates, and a life that not even death can nullify.”

Jesus, a Canaanite Woman, and an Expanded Vision of the Kingdom of God


 (Artwork: “The One with the Crumby Dog” by Ally Barrett)

The Lectionary Gospel for this weekend (August 16, 2020) is Matthew 15:21-28. It is a portion of Scripture in which Jesus finds himself confronted with a desperate and terrified Gentile mother whose daughter is “tormented by a demon.”

Interestingly, the same story is recorded in Mark 7:24-30. The primary editorial difference in the two iterations of the story is that, in Mark’s Gospel, the woman is a Syrophoenician, and in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a Canaanite. The common racial/sociological/religious denominator, however, remains intact in both versions of the encounter: This desperate mother is a non-Jewish female, meaning that she faces a two-fold dynamic that many in her social milieu would have been happy to highlight. First, she was a Gentile—a non-Jewish person—in a world where racial and religious categories were clearly defined, widely recognized, and fiercely maintained. And, second, she was a woman—a non-male—in a world where gender defined both social positioning and agency.

In the story, the Gentile woman begs Jesus to provide deliverance and healing for her daughter. Jesus, at first, ignores her, offering her the pain of agonizing silence in the midst of her maternal anguish. Had she expected the silence? Perhaps. After all, her gender, race, and religious identification were all wrong for the scenario. She was a non-Jewish woman, living on the other side of a covenant community’s line of demarcation. It may have been that Jesus’ silence was all too familiar to her, like a stale but recognizable air that she had to breathe in yet again.

The disciples, no doubt taking their cue from Jesus’ initial silence, implore him to send her away. It is the nature of discrimination, I suppose, to identify the outsider, label her, and work for her dismissal. This is precisely what the disciples do: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We do not normally like to think of the disciples of Jesus as perpetuators of discrimination or rejection. But discrimination and rejection are exactly the response that they offer to this hurting woman.

Those of you who are parents, imagine being treated so dismissively and disrespectfully if you were seeking help for your hurting or troubled child. Allow the pain of that imagined situation to become one of the hermeneutics that you bring to this Scripture.

But, no worries, right? Because Jesus is there. Surely Jesus will immediately rebuke the disciples for their discriminatory proclivities and hard-heartedness. Surely Jesus will immediately speak up for this hurting woman, thereby redeeming her suffering and restoring her beloved daughter to health. Surely Jesus will quickly manifest the love of God’s heart toward this woman and her daughter. Right?

Well, not exactly. At least not immediately.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says to the woman when he finally emerges from his initial silence. (Translation: “I was sent only to a particular people, and I’m afraid that you and your daughter are not a part of the people I was sent to save.”)

Again, utilize your imagination so that the gravity of this moment is not too quickly sidestepped. Ponder what it would feel like to be met with abject rejection from a healer about whom you have heard so much, simply because you were not a part of his preestablished theological itinerary.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman, stunningly, refuses to leave. She kneels, daring to show respect and reverence in the face of abject rejection. Then she speaks, with an even greater sense of urgency: “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds to her by moving from the already-articulated rejection to a pointed insult: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Translation: “Since I was sent specifically to the Jewish people, it would be inappropriate to take their designated salvation and offer it to ‘dogs’ like you and your daughter.”)

By the way, I am not exaggerating or distorting the text. This is Jesus. The One whom Christians embrace as Messiah. The One in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. The One who gave his life for the world but who, in this moment, seemingly dismisses and insults a heartbroken woman who is kneeling before him on behalf of her hurting daughter.

What would you have done if you were the woman who had just been called a “dog” by the healer from whom she had come to seek help? Personally, I probably would have been looking for a quick exit out of the encounter. If the rejection had not already inspired me to head for the door, the insult would have completed the task. Personal dignity is at stake here, not to mention the dignity of her daughter. This woman’s sense of urgency, however, seems to be far greater than her vulnerability to rejection. Instead of leaving the presence of the man who had just insulted her, she finds her voice and speaks directly into the insult: “Perhaps you are right,” she essentially says to Jesus. “Perhaps I am just a dog. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Remarkable, is it not? This Gentile woman, dismissed by the disciples, insulted by Jesus, somehow finds her voice, pushing back against the very insult that still permeated the air around her. She takes hold of the imagery that Jesus places before her and expands it so that she and her daughter might have a place in it: “Perhaps you are right, Jesus. Maybe I am lowly in the scheme of things. But do not even lowly animals deserve some crumbs and scraps from the table so that they do not starve?”

When Jesus recognizes that he has been met heart to heart and word for word by this woman whose determination seems to be every bit as deep as her concern for her daughter, he transitions from rejection to embrace, from insult to affirmation: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” We are told that, instantly, the woman’s daughter is healed.

Thanks be to God for the miraculous healing and the transformational grace of Jesus that it illuminates! But, what about the strange and painful journey it took to get there? Yes, Jesus ultimately restored the woman’s daughter to health. But what do we do with a Jesus who initially ignores, rejects, and insults?

Like many of you, I have experienced several sermons that have taken great pains to tidy up this moment of Scripture. I have probably even preached some of those sermons. “Jesus was only testing the woman, helping her to arrive at a faith response that she would not have been able to generate had he not put her through rejection and insult.” Or, “Jesus intended to heal the daughter all along. He simply had to drive the woman into a deeper desperation before the healing could be fully realized.” Or, “Jesus didn’t really mean the rejection or the insult. He was simply helping the woman to access a deeper sense of belief in the healing power of God.”

Perhaps one or all of these interpretations is accurate. Perhaps Jesus was simply leading the woman into a painful but important test, helping her to join him on the sacred ground upon which he is already standing. If you embrace such a reading of the text, I certainly will not divide with you over it.

What must be taken seriously, though, is that the text itself does not suggest such an interpretation. Nor does the text itself imply that Jesus was offering to this woman something other than an authentic, if spontaneous, response. Beyond this, even if this were a test to which Jesus was subjecting the woman, would it lessen our discomfort at all to think of Jesus testing a suffering woman by means of a rejection and an insult that would have seemed all too real to her, even if they were not “real” to Jesus?

When we think of Jesus’ Incarnation, his mystical journey into human flesh, we tend to make some assumptions. We sometimes assume, for example, that, as the Son of God, Jesus came into the world already holding the totality of his Father’s expansive and comprehensive worldview. We assume that Jesus never had to experience any growth, any change, or any development. If that is the theological assumption with which one approaches this Biblical story, the only alternative is to conclude that Jesus’ dismissive insult toward the woman is indeed nothing more than an elaborate, albeit hurtful, test, offered en route to his hidden and redemptive agenda.

But, what if (and, please, bear with my prayerful exploration)…

…What if the Son of God came into this world fully prepared to expand his vision and understanding of his own ministry? What if Jesus’ Incarnation is not only a glorious event (which we rightly celebrate at Christmas) but also a progressive journey, impacted and shaped by every one of his encounters, including this encounter with a Gentile woman? What if the Word becoming flesh required the vulnerability of growth—vulnerability in which a Jesus (as human as he was divine) allowed himself to learn through experience that the Kingdom his Father sent him to inaugurate was even more expansive than what his disciples (and perhaps the Gospel writers) had originally believed?

In other words, what if Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is less of a calculated test and more of a kairotic moment in which Jesus experiences a genuine and existential confirmation of a more expansive vision for his mission and purpose, triggered by the brave prompting of a Gentile woman who simply would not go away?

If that were at all the case, then Jesus, in his stark encounter with this desperate woman, calls to mind the very church that is built upon his Lordship and governed by it. Every day, the church, like Jesus with the woman, is confronted with the challenge of reconceptualizing pre-conceived categories in order to manifest more fully a divine love and grace that stubbornly resist categorization. The church’s long and ugly history with racism and bigotry bears witness to how frequently we have been content with distorted vision and malformed worldviews. In practice, the church has often bailed out of the story at the point of insult and rejection instead of joining Jesus in the work of embracing the “other” and seeing the world differently.

It makes me all the more grateful for this Canaanite woman, who dared to see past the boundaries that the people in her world were all too eager to enforce. Her voice speaks God’s very heart into a painful moment, reminding even Jesus of what he was coming to understand more clearly in her presence—that there are no mutts in God’s ever-expanding Kingdom (or Kin-dom) and that no one is excluded in the salvation that God is envisioning for this world and offering to it.

If you have read this far, you might be at the point of saying, “No way! The Jesus I love and worship wouldn’t have needed to change or grow. It was just a difficult test for a woman who needed precisely the hard push that Jesus was providing.”

Perhaps you are right.

Personally, I am intrigued and strangely comforted by the thought of a Jesus who loved us enough to enter fully into every portion of the vulnerability of the human condition—including the vulnerability of having to grow and learn. And, when Jesus found himself confronted with the possibility that his mission was even more wide-ranging than the people around him had initially assumed, he did not blink or back down. Instead, he stepped beyond the well-enforced boundaries in order to bring salvation to a Canaanite woman and the Gentile world that she represented.

I am praying that the church never forgets who its Jesus is, especially in an age when the work of dismantling sins like racism and bigotry is more urgent than ever. Like Jesus, may his church dare to engage with the “Canaanite women” (marginalized and desperate souls) who are standing somewhere nearby, wondering if there are any “crumbs” for them from the tables we hold sacred. Like Jesus, may we hear the Word of God in their voices. May we sense the calling of God in their outcries. And may we discern the very face of God in their freshly illuminated countenances.

Loneliness, Isolation, and the Regathered Church


(Artwork: “Loneliness” by Rudolf Brink)

During a recent conversation, a man who is not connected to any faith community but who knows that I am a clergy person asked a question for which I did not have an immediate response.

“After this pandemic, why would anyone want to return to church buildings? I mean, since so many churches are doing online stuff, why would there be a need for people to be in a building together?”

He was asking the question out of curiosity, not cynicism. The look on my face probably communicated to him that I did not have an exhaustive, or even adequate, response. Together, though, we found our way into what felt like a weighty exploration of some of the issues that were pertinent to his inquiry—issues such as the risks and merits of physical assembly; the unique energy of unison singing and praying; the simultaneous vulnerability and veneration represented by an in-person gathering of worshipers; and the differences between online connection and corporeal (bodily) interaction.

We did not come to definitive conclusions in our conversation. I walked away, however, feeling as through I had been unexpectedly ushered into a deeper contemplation of the complexities surrounding the sheer physicality of the regathered church. More importantly, I felt powerfully confronted by the “why” of my friend’s inquiry. “Why would anyone want to return to church buildings?”

I believe that part of the answer to this “why” has to do with the profound sense of isolation that our nation has been experiencing for many years and that COVID-19 has both illuminated and intensified. In a recent article entitled, “The Price of Isolation” (which appeared in the July 2020 issue of “Rolling Stone”), writer Alex Morris describes what many are calling the national “loneliness epidemic” plaguing America:

As individual as the experience of isolation may be, America as a nation entered this pandemic particularly ill-equipped to handle it. For years, we have been engaged in what former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called a ‘loneliness epidemic’…According to Steve Cole, the director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory, this ‘loneliness epidemic’ is actually a public health issue.

In the same article, Morris gives compelling statistical support for the widespread loneliness that he names:

According to the most recent census, more than a quarter of Americans live alone (the highest percentage on record) and more than half are unmarried (with marriage rates at historic lows). People are having fewer children, volunteering less, and reporting lower levels of religious and other forms of affiliation. These markers may all seem too anachronistic to say much about our modern age, but Americans also ‘feel’ more lonely: The percentage who say they are [lonely] has doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40.

Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, offers this additional statistic obtained via a large-scale survey in which participants were asked how many people they have in their lives with whom they would feel comfortable experiencing a deep, personal, and vulnerable conversation:

“In the Eighties, the average was three, but the most common response was also three. In the 2000s, the average was two, but the most common response was zero.”

One of the ironies in this documented loneliness is that online communication is thriving. According to market research, US adults will spend, on average, 82 minutes per day engaged in online social networks. It inspires a question: How can we possibly feel isolated and lonely when we have so many Facebook friends?

Therein may lie a portion of the struggle. A connection on social media, after all, is certainly no guarantee of relational intimacy or authentic vulnerability. The instantaneous posting of strong opinions about controversial subjects (without the mitigating dynamics of body language, eye contact, and vocal inflection) can often lead to a greater sense of isolation, especially if people are inclined to treat social media as an opportunity to weaponize their perspectives, intensify philosophical battle lines, or belittle opposing views. As one person said to me recently, “it seemed like it was a whole lot easier for me to like people when I didn’t know all of their opinions.”

Another factor to consider is personal temperament and, in particular, the introvert/extrovert dynamic. Both introverts and extroverts need community, but they experience it in different ways. Introverts will often expend emotional energy in the very same moments that extroverts are gaining it. This fact has led many introverts to celebrate their introversion during the recent quarantine. “Are you kidding me,” an introvert exclaimed to me the other day. “I was built for quarantine! My whole life has been a preparation for social distancing.” As a strong introvert myself, I smiled at her observation. Over the years, however, I have learned how dangerously easy it is for me to hide behind my introversion, utilizing it as emotional fuel for pushing away relationships, even in those moments when I desperately need and crave them. What I am describing is complicated, to be certain, but important not to overlook: Extroverts may feel isolated and lonely in their lack of opportunity for authentic interaction. Introverts, by contrast, may feel isolated and lonely within a temperament in which their solitude can become as confining as it is necessary.

All of this brings me back to the question my friend asked: “Why would anyone want to return to church buildings?” If returning to church buildings were solely a matter of institutional maintenance or resuming familiar habits and routines, then the question itself would be wholly rhetorical. But the heart of the “why” is more spiritual and ontological than that.

We gather in-person as the church to remember in our very bodies the truth that is at the center of our Gospel—the truth of a God who became flesh; a God who would settle for nothing less than an in-person relationship with humankind; a God who ate with us, drank with us, broke and bled with us, and invited us to touch his scars; a God whose incarnation transforms the corporeality of a weekly in-person worship service into a renewed experience of the redemption of one’s very flesh.

We gather in-person as the church to hear the sounds and experience the movements of the people around us, thereby remembering that our physicality is part of an embodied community.

We gather in-person as the church to encounter afresh the mysterious yet palpable vitality produced by unison laughter and weeping, congregational singing and praying, and the shared acknowledgement of one another’s physical uniqueness and its communion with the physical uniqueness of others.

Most of all, we gather in-person as the church to declare that the nation’s loneliness epidemic is neither the governor of the human spirit nor the end of the human story.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not calling for a lessening of COVID-19-related protocols and security measures. Quite the contrary, the in-person community we experience in the church must be the safest environment that we can possibly create, thereby ensuring both the doing of no harm and the protection of the most vulnerable in our midst. (Which is to say, please where a mask, keep your distance, and honor the church’s safety protocols!) This post is not a call for an irresponsible regathering or an abandonment of our precautions. Rather, it is a call to remember why we are inclined to regather in the first place—not to keep our buildings open and to perpetuate the institution, but to reengage a communal physicality that reminds us of our shared humanity, even as that same communal physicality groans for redemption.

Personally, I want to come back to the regathered church with a greater attentiveness to the profound loneliness that many of us (including this writer) are experiencing. I want my awareness of the loneliness epidemic to make me more intentional about the nurturing of relationships, the initiation of personal conversations (even at a distance and through masks), and the giving and receiving of love. Most of all, I want churches, most of which are inclined to describe themselves as “friendly” even when they are not, to recognize and affirm with new energy that every soul that ventures through the doors of the building (and every soul that does not) matters deeply to the heart of God and should therefore matter deeply to the church’s people.

In short, I long for the church to manifest its creed in gatherings where people feel known and not ignored, valued and not dismissed, honored and not mistreated, relationally pursued but not accosted, loved and not manipulated.

There are no quick fixes for widespread loneliness or a prevailing sense of isolation, and the last thing I wish to offer is a shallow response to a profound struggle. At the same time, I believe that a safely regathered church—and safely regathered faith communities in general—can become instruments of healing in what must be treated as a long national journey toward the rediscovery of embodied community. A regathered church, if approached and maintained rightly, can become for an isolated people a sacred ground on which to stand with other journeyers and a holy space in which to engage with them in the urgent work of seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, and (eventually) touching and being touched.

Billy Joel, in his most famous song, wrote about the eccentric patrons who would gather at a bar to hear him play: “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” It was a creative way of describing the strange and mystical dynamics of in-person community. Even when we feel lonely in a gathered crowd (which is the case for many in the church, I think), the physical presence of other people, the language of their bodies, and the very cadence of their breathing can become a tangible and comforting reminder that we are not unaccompanied in the journey.

To put it simply, the drink we share in the church is nothing less than the cup of salvation. And we do not drink it alone.

The Regathered Church


(Artwork: “Returning to Church” by Eunhye Cho)

It is an anxious and exciting time.

Many of our churches are preparing and planning for a congregational regathering that will make it possible for people of faith to return (with several added precautions) to some kind of in-person worship and spiritual formation.

The temptation is to see the regathering as a return to “normal.” My suspicion, however, is that “normal” was one of the very first casualties of the global pandemic. In the post-pandemic  church (or, perhaps more accurately, the “regathered church in the continuing pandemic”), “normal” has given way to “untraveled,” and “business as usual” has become “building the plane as we are flying it.” For the Church to see its situation rightly, I believe it to be essential for the Church’s people to look upon their regathering, not as a return to what was, but as a series of sacred opportunities for newness.

Here are some of the opportunities that I am envisioning.

Regathering is an opportunity to redefine and reconfigure our relationship with our buildings and facilities

For several months, we have confirmed with unprecedented clarity a truth often affirmed in our theology but forgotten in our practice. The truth to which I am making reference is this: The Church is not defined, limited, or governed by its architecture.

Since mid-March, this important truth has found fresh expression and validation in the church’s ministry outside of its buildings and facilities. We have had to let go of our architecture for a season in order to become, in the deepest sense, a church without walls. For the last three months, we have been a church in mission and ministry through our online connection; through the nurturing of deeper relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, and other congregants from whom we are physically separated; and through our compassionate attentiveness to the most vulnerable members of our congregations. In short, it has been a season for rediscovering the Church’s heart—a heart that beats, not in the maintenance of our architecture, but in the unfettered and unhoused work of praying and being prayed for, ministering and being ministered to, loving and being loved.

As we regather in our sanctuaries and fellowship halls, my heartfelt hope is that we will be mindful of what we have learned or relearned over the last few months and that this mindfulness will help us to re-enter our architecture with these freshly-clarified convictions:

  • That church buildings are sacred spaces (because of the activity that occurs there) but not the definers of the church’s ministry
  • That church buildings are resources to be stewarded, not sacrosanct shrines to be revered
  • That Trustees are entrusted primarily to be facilitators of ministry, not landlords
  • That a commitment to keeping the doors of the building open is neither an adequate vision for ministry nor a sufficient justification for a church’s continued existence

As we regather, I pray that our spirits will be elevated by the beauty of our sanctuaries, the grandness of our altar spaces, and the familiarity of our stained glass windows and time-tested furniture. I pray that we will also re-consecrate our architecture with the kind of petition that clarifies a right relationship with our facilities—a petition that might sound something like this:

O God, who is worshiped in our building but who is in no way contained by it: Pour out your Spirit upon every room of our facility, that you might be glorified by the ministry that takes place here. Regather us in this sacred space, but also deliver us from every temptation to deify our architecture. Make it possible for authentic songs of praise to resonate in the sanctuary and hallways, but also set us free from every tendency to treat our building as the object of our worship. Set apart this sacred space for your purposes, but, more than this, set apart your people to be your Church more faithfully.

Regathering is an opportunity to reshape liturgy and expand doxological creativity

For decades and maybe longer, the church’s conversations about worship have all too often been reduced to liturgical arguments and unnecessary dichotomies, the end result of which has been the frequent stifling of creativity and the elevation of personal preference over liturgical diversity. This season of regathering, however, opens the door to revisiting congregational worship with fresh eyes and hearts, having been away from typical orders of worship for a number of months. Perhaps it is time for pastors, church musicians, worship leaders and worship planners to commit themselves, not only to the incorporation of what is familiar, but also to experimentation with what may feel completely new.

How might the offering of testimony, for example, become part of worship, so that important stories of faith, pain, healing, and redemption might be told?

How might congregational prayer become an interactive practice, so that the experience of prayer is more communal and less monological?

How might the proclamation of the Word be reconceptualized, so that, on occasion, it might become less of an extended presentation and more of an unscripted congregational conversation about how Scripture is being heard, understood, and applied?

How might the presentation of our tithes and offerings become an intentional coming forward (a different kind of “altar call,” if you will) instead of remaining a routine passing of the plate?

How might the congregation be invited to experience a wider variety of music so that worship becomes less about personal preference and more about the glorification of a God whose majesty deserves and demands nothing less than musical diversity? (This question, of course, takes on a new level of depth and complexity in light of recent concerns about congregational and choral singing and their connection to the spread of infection. Perhaps this is the related question to ponder: What new and safer methodologies might congregations need to employ in order to help a congregation to “sing” even when singing is not permitted?)

I do not pretend to know what reconfigured worship might look like in each specific context. But my sincere hope is that those who are responsible for the creation and organization of congregational worship will utilize this season of regathering as a unique opportunity to reimagine the way we worship instead of simply settling for a return to patterns that may no longer be sufficient for the new song of praise that the post-pandemic church longs to sing.

Regathering is an opportunity to streamline and recreate the Church’s administrative leadership

I heard a pastor phrase it this way recently: “The ‘shelter in place’ restrictions forced our committees to focus on more strategic agendas…Our Zoom meetings led to some of the most fruitful and meaningful conversations that our committees have ever had. I want to keep that going when we go back to meeting in person.”

I believe that this pastor was articulating an important point—that the regathered church affords to us a unique opportunity to reimagine our ecclesiastical administration. For some churches, that might involve a transition to a single board governance structure. For other churches, it might involve staff reconfigurations and new job descriptions. For all of us, it will involve more intentional meeting agendas, so that our administrative conversations are more focused on missional priorities and less on institutional maintenance.

Regathering is an opportunity to re-ground ourselves in our unifying Story and reframe our often divisive sub-narratives

Granted, there is not complete agreement on what constitutes the Church’s “unifying Story” and “divisive sub-narratives,” which makes it difficult to treat this point as anything more than a vague hope. But, for me, it is a hope that is worth naming, embracing, and nurturing.

What do I mean by our “unifying Story?” I mean the Story of the Triune God as told in our Scripture and Creeds—the Story of a Parent who creates and recreates, a Son who saves and redeems, and a Spirit who transforms and equips. It is the story of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, whose invitation into a saving relationship is as unmerited as it is beautiful. It is the story of sanctification and discipleship, in which the grace of Jesus Christ is magnificently at work to bring our lives into alignment with who God created us to be.

Our often divisive sub-narratives are not insignificant, to be sure. In fact, one churchperson’s sub-narrative might be another churchperson’s significant priority. It is not my desire to downplay the complexity and difficulty of navigating this territory. But my sincere hope is that this season of regathering will become a time of theological recalibration during which congregations might re-learn the deeper Story that unifies; re-clarify what might constitute both our defining non-negotiables and our “think and let think” negotiables; and recommit to the life of discipleship to which our Story calls us.

Regathering is an opportunity to re-ignite the Church’s missional relationship with the world

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our world is yearning more deeply than ever for the hope and truth that the Church is uniquely equipped to offer. Hungry people need healthy food. Addicted people need ministries of recovery. Struggling students need tutoring. Community institutions (like schools and hospitals) need strategic institutional partnerships. Lonely people need relationships. Disenfranchised people need advocacy. Voiceless people need a voice. Lost people need Jesus.

This season of regathering is a clarion call for churches to rediscover their missional commitment to their communities and to reinvent their presence in their neighborhoods so that the regathered Church becomes known for its risky outreach, its missional experimentation, and its stubborn refusal to settle for isolation and self-preservation.

Indeed, the Church’s people are planning and preparing for regathering.

May the regathered Church’s prayers be fervent.

May the regathered Church’s worship be vibrant.

May the regathered Church’s discipleship be faithful.

And may the regathered Church’s ministry be a ray of hope to a hurting world.

The Lord’s Supper and Virtual Worship


My spirit soars with particular energy whenever the people of the church spend time in the depths of authentic theological conversation. Presently, such theological conversation is happening robustly around the church’s virtualization (i.e., the church’s movement to online settings) in these days of quarantine and social distancing. It may be that the current theological searching and wrestling is part of God’s creative redemption of these difficult days.

Perhaps some of the most compelling recent theological discourse revolves around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The driving question in much of the conversation is this: Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually? Or, to put in another way, can we share the sacramental bread and cup when we are connected online but not physically present in the same geographical space?

(Note: I address these matters as a United Methodist clergyperson, speaking from a United Methodist perspective. I will honor other denominations by allowing their voices and leaders to speak out of their own sacramental theology and tradition.)

Allow me to cut to the proverbial chase: In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop—Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi—has made it clear that United Methodist Churches in Western Pennsylvania are NOT to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in virtual settings. My sense is that the Bishop has issued this directive for no other reason but to guard both the theological identity and the ontological integrity of the sacrament (which is precisely what we count on our Bishop to do). I am grateful for Bishop Cynthia’s clarity and leadership in this regard.

Beyond this practical and clear directive, however, the theological conversation around the Lord’s Supper and its proper celebration continues to find compelling expression. Some have been quick to articulate their strong opposition to “virtual Holy Communion” on the grounds that such a practice would constitute the “disembodiment” of the sacrament—i.e., the removal of the sacrament from its necessary concreteness and its physical community. According to this argument, the act of virtualizing or digitalizing the Lord’s Supper would dangerously distort both the sacrament’s incarnational nature and its celebration of a fully-embodied Christ whose living presence calls for a fully-enfleshed community.

On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the Holy Spirit is hard at work to redefine and reconfigure “embodiment” in this season of crisis where disembodiment (i.e., social distancing) has become a necessary norm. According to this line of thought, the Holy Spirit’s sacramental work cannot be confined by the church’s physicality and is just as efficacious in a virtual connection as it is in physical congregation. Those who espouse this perspective are likely to suggest that prohibiting a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper irresponsibly elevates the physical over the metaphysical, thereby generating a truncated sacramentology in which the Holy Spirit is not given adequate space in which to usher an isolated people into a transformational communion with the real presence of Jesus and with one another.

So, here we are.

I would suspect that neither “side” in this sacramental discourse is comprehensively right, and that both perspectives (and other perspectives between them) articulate important priorities that help to illuminate what is ultimately best for the church’s practice. Wherever it is that you land in the spectrum of the discourse, I encourage you not to allow your position to become so soundproof that you fail to hear what is right or helpful from other voices.

My personal conviction is that the entire conversation is helping the church to develop and clarify what might be called its theology of embodiment. What do I mean by “theology of embodiment?” I simply mean the church’s understanding of how God coordinates the mystical territory between “essence” and “substance;” between “in-person” and “online;” between the corporeal and the virtual. In other words, a theology of embodiment wrestles with this question: “What truth and illumination does the Incarnation—the “in-the-flesh-ness” of God in Jesus—bring to our understanding of physicality, virtual connection, and the sharing of the bread and cup?”

The church’s current theology of embodiment does not permit the church to validate or sanction an online or virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To put it simply, the church has a long history of interpreting the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of a living Christ who is embodied in the bread and cup, the consecration of which demands a physically gathered community whose corporeality bears witness to the very flesh that the Incarnation redeems. Will that interpretation change over time as our experience of virtual community continues to expand? Time will tell. But an altered sacramental interpretation would require a substantially reworked theology of embodiment.

Again, Bishop Cynthia’s instruction to the United Methodist Churches of Western Pennsylvania not to celebrate virtual or online communion is both clear and helpfully binding, which is essential to remember in our development of a unified sacramental approach.

If you are a pastor or church leader, I encourage you to continue to offer creative and safe ways for your people to experience connection, worship, prayer, and community. Utilize the telephone with new urgency. Livestream and record your worship where possible. Set up phone and video conferences for your meetings and Bible studies. Consecrate the chambers of cyberspace so that they might become tabernacles. Help your people to embrace the truth that not even a necessary social distancing can prevent the church from being the church.

In this temporary abstinence—or fast—from the Lord’s Supper, consider celebrating an online “Love Feast.” The Love Feast is a communal meal that has a rich history in the church. While it is not to be confused with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is a meaningful way for a congregation to experience a shared meal on those occasions (such as this season) when it would be inappropriate for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. I smile at the thought of the churches of my district and conference enjoying a small meal safely in their own homes while at the same time seeing the faces and hearing the voices of other church members with whom they are connected online.

Here is a link to a page with more information about the Love Feast and how to celebrate it as a church:


It hurts to be taken out of our normal practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, to be certain. And yet, it occurs to me that, while we are not able to share physically the bread and cup, we are finding remarkable ways to honor one of our most important eucharistic prayers:

“…Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

Through the creative ministry efforts of our churches in recent days, we may be doing our best-ever “eucharistic” work in “BEING” the redeemed body of Christ until such time as we are able to share the bread and cup once again. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is making our risky and innovative ministry into a metaphorical sacramental bread that we are breaking with our desperately hungry communities. I am encouraged by the thought of that. I hope that you are as well.

When we return to the table of the Lord’s Supper soon, we will be hungrier for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation than we have ever been. What a celebration that will be!

Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)


Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.

Don’t GO Home, But BE at Home: A Reflection On Women In Ministry


(Artwork: “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”—from Japan, unknown artist)

It was a significant moment and not in a good way.

On October 18, as part of a panel discussion at a “Truth Matters Conference” in Sun Valley, California, author and pastor John MacArthur was asked to share (in just a couple of words) his thoughts about author and preacher Beth Moore. MacArthur’s response was as stark as it was revelatory.

“Go home,” he said.

“Go home!”

MacArthur went on to clarify his response: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. End of discussion.”

“Go home!”

In his words from that Sun Valley platform, MacArthur successfully encapsulated what countless women who are called by God to ministry have heard from many within the Body of Christ:

No! Not you! You have obviously misheard God’s voice and misunderstood God’s call on your life. The Bible is clear: Women are not to have authority over men, and we refuse to believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new worldview in which gender-based hierarchy no longer makes sense. Turn away from this unauthorized sense of call. This ministry is not for you. Go home!

Having watched the video of MacArthur’s comments, even more troubling to me than the comments themselves is the response of the audience. It was a response of laughter, loud and energized—a dehumanizing “amen” that felt less like church and more like a shared derision pointed toward Beth Moore, a sister in Christ who was not even present at the conference.

MacArthur’s words and the audience’s response to them immediately brought to my mind the faces of many women whose leadership, preaching, and teaching has shaped and nurtured me throughout my pilgrimage. If the women preachers have to go home, then so do I, since I would not be who and what I am without those female clergypersons whose ministry has been instrumental in making me more authentically human and more holistically Christian.

My female colleagues in ministry certainly do not need my defense, nor do they need my expressions of righteous anger (especially since, as a white male, my “righteous anger” can sometimes sound like little more than patronizing rhetoric or perhaps even a superficial assuagement of a highly privileged guilt). Still, I long to speak to the hearts of my sisters and to the heart of the church.

But what might I say?

Perhaps I will simply reframe MacArthur’s language so that the vocabulary of “home” might find its proper redemption. Here goes:

Sisters in ministry, please, for the sake of the Gospel we love, do not even think about going home. Instead, in the rhythms of our fallen church’s broken ministry, BE at home!

Yes. Maybe that is what I feel most led to say. Sisters in ministry…

…BE at home!

Be at home in a church that has often been anything but hospitable to you but that desperately needs your leadership and vision.

Be at home in a deeper reading of Scripture that refuses to weaponize texts but instead interprets them through the hermeneutical lens of the Living Word.

Be at home in a post-Pentecost reality in which both sons and daughters are called and equipped to proclaim and lead.

Be at home amid your broken church’s ongoing repentance to which I add my voice and heart—a repentance in which I name my complicity (often manifested in my silence) in maintaining gender-based hierarchies and inequities.

Be at home in the renewed commitment being made by many of your male colleagues (including this one) to identify and stand against misogyny in all of its expressions.

Be at home in your divine calling that cannot be stifled and micromanaged by the machinery of patriarchy; be at home in a righteous anger that many of your brothers carry with you; be at home in a stubborn refusal to accommodate false stories and weaponized Scripture.

Male colleagues, be at home in utilizing your voice and agency in prophetic ways to dismantle patterns and practices that are unjust or distorted and to advocate for female voices that desperately need to be heard.

Female colleagues, be at home where you already are—in the heart of the church’s ministry.

Most of all, be at home in Jesus Christ, who is always a trustworthy dwelling place, even when the institutional church is not.

Be at home.


Bent Toward Lent


(Artwork: “Path to the Cross” by Kate Robertson)

Those who live by the church’s way of measuring time now find themselves in the six-week season known as Lent.

The word “Lent” is a derivative of an old Anglo-Saxon word (“lencten”) which simply means “springtime.” There is nothing automatically holy about the season of Lent. When Christ-followers approach it attentively and prayerfully, however, Lent can become a spiritual journey alongside Jesus into a more intimate engagement with the Divine Heart.

Some people “give up” something for Lent in order to practice the kind of sacrifice that might inspire a fresh attentiveness to deeper things. Other people “take up” something for Lent—a new spiritual discipline or a particular act of ministry—in order to intensify their spiritual focus.

For me, Lent has always been, among other things, a time to receive more deeply the Holy Spirit’s gracious invitation to become more fully who God created me to be. The church calls this the work of repentance.

Truth be told, it saddens me when I think about how frequently I reduce repentance to drudgery—a joyless rhythm of “try and fail” that generates more dread than hope, more shame than freedom. Jesus had to have something better than that in mind when he invited us to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

Maybe Jesus is asking us to see that repentance, when understood as God’s accomplishment rather than ours, can become a beautiful rehearsal of the kind of life in which Jesus creatively reconfigures the way we relate to our various distortions.

Maybe Jesus is asking us to believe that, in the walk of repentance, he actually comes alongside us as an advocate in our places of struggle, so that he might patiently and mercifully guide us away from our self-righteous or self-indulgent fixations and toward the things he values and offers.

Such repentance is not an event but a way of life—not a solitary prayer but a liberating pilgrimage of joyful deliverance.


…giving something up…

…taking something up…


…walking more watchfully alongside Jesus and being undone by his scandalous grace.

My prayer is that those of you who observe Lent will experience the next several weeks as an energizing realignment—a vibrant reawakening to the vitality of a Christwardly-surrendered life.

May it be so.