Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/4 2019

Rachel Held Evans and Grace

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Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans (right) and Nadia Bolz-Weber at Pittsburgh Seminary

 

My wife, Erin, and I first became aware of Rachel Held Evans when we were serving in Florida. As we were working with youth from a number of churches, one of the teenagers asked us to read something called A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

It struck us as an odd request – odd enough that we bought a copy and started reading.

The book was engaging, insightful, and above all else, really funny.

We began to wonder about the author who would undertake such a project, a woman named Rachel Held Evans.

Ten years later, sitting in a dining room at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we asked a group of pastors and seminary students to dream big. The Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute 20th anniversary was coming up, and we wanted to know who they would like us to bring as a speaker.

 

They came up with three names. Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and, if there was money left over, Bono.

 

We aimed for two of the three.

In contacting Rachel, we quickly realized that she was indeed someone we wanted to bring to celebrate the anniversary of SYI, and things fell into place quickly.

When the event finally arrived we were impressed with her content and presentations, but we had expected them to be good. What surprised us was something else.

The Grace of Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held EvansLooking back on that event, there is really just one word that comes to mind regarding our dealings with Rachel. 

Grace.

The memory we have of Rachel is how incredibly gracious she was. She spent time chatting with participants, signing books, sharing that same insightful humor that had first caught my attention all those years ago. (Nadia also came and was likewise wonderful to work with, but this post isn’t really about her.)

As we receive the news of Rachel’s passing today, SYI extends its sympathies and compassion to her friends and family, especially her husband and two young children. She was a blessing to our program and a delight to work with. Her legacy of insight, humor, and most of all grace has been a blessing to so many and will continue to influence people for years to come.​

 

The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute and digital marketing analyst. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program and Master of Sacred Theology (ThM), between which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with youth pastors and young adults, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.

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1/18 2019

In Support of Pastors

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supporting pastors

When I was coming through seminary, I heard a few distinct messages loud and clear:

  • “There won’t be a church job for you when you graduate, so don’t expect to find one.”
  • “Don’t worry too much about understanding budgets, your church will have a financial secretary to help you with that.”
  • “Taking on some education debt is very common.”

At the time, my youth, general ignorance about that world, and low economic expectations (it was, after all, 2008 when I started seminary) protected me from the naturally frightened and conflicted response one might have to that combination of statements. As Ezra Pound wrote in Cantos, “I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere.” I didn’t particularly try to.

 

Supporting Pastors

But what happens when church leaders who were taught this way come of age in the 60 hour work weeks of ministry? What happens when general ignorance becomes particular knowledge—of human suffering, economic inequity, savior complexes, untenable expectations, impossible working structures, loneliness and lack of support? Well, that brings us to the fourth message I remember loud and clear from my seminary days, “Remember, 50 percent of pastors burn out in the first five years.” Ouch.

Now, I can’t say if the conversation at my alma mater has changed, but I can say that since that time the General Assembly of the PCUSA, their Board of Pensions, and certainly at Pittsburgh Seminary, that conversation has been taken up with urgency, and quite a bit has changed at those levels to support pastors, particularly new pastors, better. Not only that, but as our mean pastoral age in the PCUSA (and across the mainline church) is rising and pastors are retiring, we are moving from a surplus of pastors to a potential shortage, which while not particularly good news, does shift things a bit.

 

Pastor Burnout

Here’s the rub—in my anecdotal experience—though national structures and educational institutions have been pivoting to reconcile some of the issues that lead to clergy burnout, local congregations, amidst slowing attendance, rural/urban divides, political battles, and financial struggles, have generally been acting in a way that exacerbates clergy health and sustainability issues. In short, their anxiety sometimes seems to be delivered upon their pastors, who are working 60 hours a week for 20 hours a week pay, as though there is an endless supply of such pastors to absorb their disappointment. However, because changing policy is so much easier than changing culture, we as a church and a denomination have been avoiding a conversation about what causes clergy burnout locally in favor of system and policy changes nationally.

Perhaps this is because, very simply, there is a lot we cannot change if our church has 20 hours a week worth of salary to offer. That is what we have to offer. If we have an aging building that needs increased care in a community where selling the asset is unlikely, that is a pretty unavoidable reality. If we are in a rural county with struggling schools and abandoned industry, we can’t offer you a “transitioning” neighborhood with big city amenities. But this negative self-assessment pattern of churches often leads us away from our natural gifts and assets. We stop thinking about all we have to offer and how we might care for and lead with our pastors in new and creative ways and instead get stuck in a spiral thinking that our pastor is going to leave us anyway.

 

Caring for Pastors

Last year I visited a congregation looking for a pastor in a small town five hours from the closest international airport. They took me out to dinner at the town’s new restaurant, told me about the downtown renaissance, introduced me to the mothers of the church, offered me a manse to live in—furnished or unfurnished, as I preferred—and I hadn’t even applied for the position! They talked about their love and hope for the community, the community’s DNA as hard working and family oriented. They spoke about the virtues of their business district and mentioned that in a small town it is easier to get things done. If a potential pastor or her spouse was interested in starting a business locally, working remotely, or being active in civic organizations, the church had the connections to make it happen and they would deploy them. They were clear about the community’s struggles, but even clearer about their care for and investment in any pastor they might welcome. More than that, they were clear that there was more on the table than a salary.

They wanted a pastor who would plan not on making a job there, but a life there. The church was ready to consider full or part time, negotiate with family/parental leave and vacation, and make sure that the quality of life was such that their pastor would not miss the amenities one needs to cope with other challenges and contexts—like overworking in a city that never sleeps. There was no sense that this community would back bite their pastor’s choice to actually use her continuing education time or take the vacation in her contract. There was no hint that they would be offended by a pastor mothering children while leading the church or coaching little league as a part of their ministry. There was no expectation that ministry only happened in certain outfits or to certain people. Generally speaking, these people wanted to invite a human pastor to minister with them, because they didn’t just want to be served by their pastor, they wanted to love and share life with their pastor.

I was shocked by how moved I was. Why isn’t this always how it works? What have we let our anxiety make of us, that we chew our pastors up out of our own self-doubt? That we speak of ourselves as forsaken? Do we not believe that God is working and present in our midst, loving us and making us lovable?

 

The Beloved and Chosen of God

 

Those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult.

Churches large and small, full-time and part-time, rural and urban, are beloved of God. Each has gifts and love to share. Their leadership needs will look different, and their life together will offer different joys and struggles. If a community is called to have pastoral leadership, then the community is called to lead with, care for, and share life with their pastor. We recently celebrated the wonder of the birth of Jesus. I invite you to consider what it meant for the small city of Bethlehem, for the humble shed Jesus was born in, for the small nation and poor people he came to that they were chosen in this way, as the viable space for the vocation of our God. Could our churches be viable in the same way?

Friends, we were chosen as those to whom God might come. Let us treat each other as the beloved and chosen of God and let us remember that those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult. Our pastors remind us what God is calling us to and also that God is not calling us or them to be everything to everyone. And that is okay. This Christmas may not have been perfect at your church or in your life or with your pastor. That is okay. My guess is Mary might have said the same thing about the first one. But God’s grace for us and God’s belovedness of us persists, so we are called to love each other.

 

The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.

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11/30 2018

Planting a Church is Whole Body Work

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integrative learning space at Pittsburgh SeminaryThe world seems to be increasingly comfortable with most of our embodied lives being reduced to the digital, and for some things that is perhaps neutral—but life together is something that is hard to do outside one’s body.

When I lived in Philadelphia, there was a neighborhood bar where I would somewhat regularly get dinner, sometimes with my husband, Andy, sometimes with others while he was still at a church meeting. I noticed over time that I bonded pretty deeply with the servers and the bartenders. They became a bit like family to us. As I tried to articulate why that was, I found myself saying, “The other person in my life who regularly made sure I was fed is my mother.” There was muscle memory, it turned out, between being fed and feeling loved. Sure, we liked the staff at the bar—we got on well and laughed together, but the bond that was formed was one of provision. They looked after us, and we began to see the bar as a safe space and a sort of second home. That kind of bond is part of what it means to do life together, and it is hard to get that bond when you don’t bring bodies into account.

 

Church Planting as Whole Body Work

When I think of church planting as a whole body work, I think of provision more generally. People often say, “Church isn’t the building, it’s the people,” and while that isn’t untrue, what we miss is that people gathered inhabit space and time. If we are to care for each other, to nourish each other, or offer rest to each other, real physical space is needed. Real physical elements are needed.

And part of pastoring, part of church planting, is making a space that is prepared. This can’t be done by solely putting our theological education into words and reading it out loud. We can’t do this as dis-embodied, talking heads, beamed into a blank holding space of chairs all facing one direction. Church life together—the sacraments—is embodied and inconvenient. They require the whole body—the moving of chairs, the setting of tables, the baking of bread. They require the sitting with and the listening to, the working alongside and the wading through with.

For me, at my little church in Philadelphia, it required the shoveling of snow in winter and the schlepping of electric fans in summer. It required paying attention and bearing witness, cleaning up scraped knees, and painting building signs.

 

Church Planting at Pittsburgh Seminary

At PTS, we are looking to do life together. We are training leaders up to make and convene space for folks to live life together. We have made a significant step toward this with our Barbour Library renovation. Not only does the Library make space for all manner of neighbors, groups, and friends to gather (You can bring snacks! You don’t even have to be quiet!), there is a dedicated space in the Library, called the Integrative Learning Space (pictured above).

This space invites students, small groups, and community members to think about how we make space and set the table for folks to do life together. The space is indestructible and stocked with supplies to make communal art and liturgical aids, banners for the seasons, Bible time lines, signs for orienting guests, materials for stained glass mosaics, paints for re-visioning pastor thrones, and all manner of other things that might make space for people to enter in and find a way to share life together. We hope you’ll use this space to make your own welcoming spaces, spaces where God can enter in and make us known to each other in the breaking of bread and the hearing of the Word.

 

The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.

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