WARNING! YOU MAY WANT TO BE SITTING DOWN PRIOR TO READING.
It is not a subject I bring up very often—and frankly I wonder aloud why I am bringing it up now. My son humorously observed that the upfront confession may be necessary for future damage control. Perhaps. OK, here goes. Hello, my name is Jimmy (hello Jimmy!) and for 13 years I was an evangelical pastor.
Smelling salts are available upon request.
My contemporary students and colleagues, some of whom I have known for many years, have no idea of my “former life” –with rare exception; even many of my current crew of personal friends have no idea. I generally do not divulge this personal history (for many reasons that serve no purpose to get into detail here), though, to be sure, having to live with the stereotype of a “former evangelical pastor” is near the top of the list. I never believed a person of faith was one who had to check their intellect at the church door, and, as a result, ended up writing my own “manifesto” of my then belief system –which is available upon request for anyone who really cares. I doubt it.
As a self-professed TERRIBLE former pastor, for years I would “warn” anyone who would listen that I am “this close” to walking out the doors of the church and never coming back… even as I lead my own congregation. The reality is that many were hoping I would take myself up on my own offer. I would imagine some Sundays they wondered if I was even going to show; then, one Sunday, I did not. The rest is history. I believed that I could be an agent of change and change I did –as most left the services with far less faith than when they had arrived.
I concluded that my critical thinking mind had no place in the land of inflexible dogma, at least not as the one who was supposed to be there to provide the pat answers. My “sermons” were more like college lectures and encouraged audience participation and disagreement. The new-age person could speak out freely while the visiting atheist was free to raise objections. I rarely made dogmatic statements (skillfully never using the dreaded definitive words every, always, never), rather provided probing spiritual questions coupled with a litany of possible responses. I desired to get people to think about many issues, including media, while some of my thoughts were even published. I desired for people to learn and live in tension. Long story short: A pastor who encouraged people to critically think coupled with a congregation who wanted simple answers handed to them on a silver platter was a match made in hell.
Upon reflection, I probably would have made a far better rabbi.
I was labeled a heretic on more than one occasion (prompting me at one point to write an article on the great need for heresy). My proud heretical status was ironically derived much more so from what I did not say (or better, refused to say) than from what I did say. I was frequently encouraged to give THE answer, while I preferred providing all possible answers and allowing individual congregants to be informed, then decide for themselves while “owning” their response. Yeah, right. And the pope tweets….wait.
What do I believe now? What do you think? Does it matter? Why or why not? Why do you think I will no longer engage in such dialogue? Discuss.