Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Thoughts after reading Barbara Brown Taylor      

      I've been reading quite a bit of author Barbara Brown Taylor lately, and just finished Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. After being a Episcopal priest for twenty years, Taylor leaves her position as rector of a rural church in Georgia to accept a chair in the religion department at Piedmont College. Her book details the journey she undertakes from seminary to the present using language that stirs the heart and enables one to feel within oneself her painful, personal self-discoveries. As she finds herself drowning in "compassionate fatigue" as a priest, she realizes that to leave the position she loves is the only way to save her life. Taylor allows us to see into her soul as she pours out upon the page all of her anguish, uncertainty, and struggle as she begins the transition from the congregational setting to the university campus.
      As a person in ministry, this book resonated with me deeply, for I can see all too clearly how we ministers can slip into feeling needed and indispensable in the church setting. We find ourselves as being the one who's in charge, tossing life preservers to sinners with authority, and standing in front of people each week who listen to our every word. It can be heady stuff. What's troublesome is when we believe that we are in control and no one else can measure up, that everything depends on us, that our way is the only way to "do church."
      I remember in seminary during my Pastoral Theology course that we read Greg Ogden's Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Zondervan, 2003), and how I was struck by how we function in church with an institutional mindset, which is an extremely counterproductive ministry model. Ministry should be about equipping the people; after all, this was the vision Jesus had for his disciples when he sent them out in small groups to preach, teach and heal. Servant leadership is the model that Ogden proposes, and we would do well to explore this model if it isn't in place in our churches today. It's certainly a healthier model than the traditional pyramid; the top-down style.
     It's all well and good to say that one model is better than another, but I remind myself that receiving a call from God to enter into formal ministry can wreck all kinds of havoc in one's heart and life, and all kinds of feelings of superiority can easily arise within during the training, seminary education, interviews, and candidacy processes; so much so that by the end of our preparations for ministry, we somehow have puffed ourselves up to such an extent that we feel entitled to be the one giving orders and in charge of saving sinners. How vain we are! Hopefully, new ministers are placed into loving (and forgiving!) congregations that gently knock these feelings of superiority out of them with the everyday trials of a minister's life: visits to the homebound, budget meetings about the leaking sanctuary roof, homeless people asking for rent money, and parishoners who don't like your sermon delivery style or the new banner behind the altar. But sometimes it just takes years of parish life, while God whittles and pares away at you all the while, and you find yourself somewhat lighter and leaner in soul, your egotist presumptions left somewhere behind you along the path. There comes a time when you no longer feel strong reactions kick you in the gut when someone is less than polite, when the battles you thought worthwhile ten years ago are now not worth a moment's consideration, when more often than not the first thought in your head is not, "How dare they," but "What would Jesus do in this situation?"
      So this is the journey, the spiritual journey that we all share, whether we are aware that we are on it or not. Life whittles away at us, paring us down to what matters most, and if you're a Christian, then it's Jesus Christ, and how to live your life as closely aligned to his as you can possibly get it. Hopefully, the more the ego gets rubbed away, the better to see the light of Christ shining from within. That's the hope and the prayer, anyway. May Christ walk with you on your journey of faith, now and always!

      I'll be picking up another of Barbara Brown Taylor's books soon, I know. I've already read When God Is Silent, and An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, and I highly recommend them both to you. To find out more about Taylor, visit her website at You can find her books on and at many book stores.