I love Naked Pastor, cartoonist David Hayward’s online alter-ego. I find him to be a kindred spirit, insightful, and compassionate. Having suffered a lot of mental anguish trying to push a conservative Christian congregation into a more reasonable and just expression of their faith, he was mistreated by small religious minds and left the congregation to become a university instructor and cartoonist. He writes and draws openly about his difficult journey through the dark night experience of leaving the active ministry.
His journey has been difficult, but he has chronicled his inner travels with a blunt honesty that is beyond refreshing and provides mother loads of insight not only for clergy and ex-clergy wrestling with issues of call, life beyond church and the abusive ways congregations can treat ministers, but for all of us trying to make sense of religion and the spiritual life in the 21st century.
A while back, he commented on his website that he never realized the double meaning of the name he had chosen for his online adventure – the Naked Pastor. Originally he used the name to describe that what he was doing with the website and his art was laying bare his soul in public, thus a naked pastor. Then he realized that not only is he baring his soul, but he is still a pastor even though he has left his congregation. He is a naked pastor because he is a pastor without a congregation. He has no brick and mortar church, nor does he have a formally organized group of people whom he “shepherds”, however , he still does much pastoring through his writing, his drawing, his conversations and spiritual direction with others, who, like him, have left church behind in search of God, love, healing, and authentic relationships.
When I saw what he wrote, I realized that I am doing the same thing. I resigned from a congregation because half the people didn’t want to hear what I had to say, the lay leadership didn’t want me to lead, and the entire congregation was full of such toxicity I finally came to realize that the church, an institution to which I had decided to devote my life, was the least loving, grace-filled place in my entire life. It was time to go.
Leaving sparked a host of issues that Naked Pastor has dealt with in his writing and drawing. One is reasons why it is so difficult for pastors to leave. Here’s his list. I have to say I’ve wrestled with all of these. One of the most difficult realizations for me was the abuse I endured at the hands of church people. I had trouble framing it in these terms – abuse – because my religious tradition is such liberal one. My religion is the one people come to when they run away from other abusive, more conservative religions. And yet, in the months since I resigned, I realize that I am weary and leery of people in my denomination and of my denomination in general. It took months to admit that I although I was not perfect and could probably have done some things better (who couldn’t) I was not the reason for the inability of a congregation to thrive nor was the inability of a congregation to accept leadership due to personality or character flaws on my part. Frustratingly, the denominational process ministers in my religion go through when leaving a dysfunctional congregation or a congregation in heavy conflict is heavy on blaming the minister, punishing the minister (by not letting you look for another congregation) and the more you resist this, the more it reinforces for the denomination that you have personality issues or character defects. Having to put down the desire to fight this systemic injustice has been the most difficult task of all in leaving the congregational ministry because people and structures that should exist to help and support a minister in my situation do just the opposite.
This past week during the worship service at the community center where I spend Wednesday evenings, a question was posed to the community – What have you done or given up in order to follow Jesus? I normally don’t answer or contribute much to these questions, as there are many in attendance who need a space to be heard and I don’t want to take up that available space with my stuff. I have other places I can be heard. Yet this week, without hesitating – the spirit just knows when to burst forth and speak – I blurted out, “I stopped pastoring a church.” I don’t know if it was just me, but I felt the room skip a beat. I could hear an unspoken question in not a few people’s eyes. “Did he just say he stopped being a pastor in order to follow Jesus?” Yes. Yes, I did. The pastor at the community center is someone I consider a friend and who knows my story. After I responded, I noticed her eyes get wide and nod, yes. We had a brief conversation after the service while everyone was eating dinner. I had stopped being a pastor, walked away from it, in order to more closely follow Jesus, to more closely follow the call of God in my heart. Like, David Hayward, I became a Naked Pastor. I have become a pastor without a church and without a congregation.
I told another friend on Wednesday night that I know a dozen Unitarian Universalist ministers who have walked away from congregations in the past year to become Naked Pastors because in one way or another pastoring a congregation didn’t allow them to live out their call to serve the world and its most pressing needs.
I have come to realize that I will most likely never serve a Unitarian Universalist congregation again as a pastor. During a conference call earlier today some other naked uu pastors (I assume that we were all actually clothed at the time of the call) I heard this echoed by one of my friends and colleagues on the call. The stark reality is that my best qualities and my best pastoral gifts are not wanted by the overwhelming majority of our UU congregations. I preach extempraneously in a very evangelical fashion. I talk about God a lot. I am a mystic and practice a deep spirituality. I am driven by service to the poor, the left out, the left behind and the forgotten. I need to orient my life and that of any congregation or church group I work with toward what Dr. John Perkins calls the three R’s of Christian Commuity Development: Relocation to Abandoned places of empire 2. Reconciliation of peoples to each other and to God and 3. Redistribution of goods, gifts, talent and recources from area of plenty to areas of need. UU churches are not interested in what I do well. Although I realize this, I have also come to realize that I am really grieving this reality.
The only pastorate available to me is one I carve out myself. It is a naked pastorate, void of brick and mortar church buildings and any organized congregation. Yet, slowly a people is gathering around me, both of fellow pilgrims in the area in which I live and national network of other naked pastors who know that denominational structures don’t exist to support the mission oriented, deeply spiritual work we are called to do.
Being a revolutionary always seemed more romantic. While you are in the process of slogging out and carving a new way through the jungle of 21st century religious life in America, it is decidedly unromantic. There is deep anxiety about where money will come from to support your family. There is conflict in personal relationships from the most intimate to the most casual as family and friends realize you’re serious about your intention to actually relocate into the abandoned places, and not just work, but live among the poor. And in spite of knowing you are on the right path with good companions, there is a nagging sense of failure because you don’t fit the mold for which you invested so much time, money, energy and training.
All that’s left to do is continue to be open to where the spirit leads. Hopefully, I’ll get to put on some clothes again at some point.