By John Helmiere, founding minister of Valley & Mountain.
Over 12 months, the Forum for Theological Education is spotlighting 12 leaders, their stories, and how their passion and call to shape a more hopeful future through Christian ministry guides the impact they are making in their communities, institutions, and universities. You can find the full series, here.
I went to seminary because I thought I was called to be a pastor. Quickly, I began having second thoughts. While the coursework and worship offered at Yale Divinity School was enriching, when I spent time with actual pastors and in actual churches, I could only envision a bleak future for myself.
Seminary got me all hot and bothered by the counter-cultural, anti-imperial, table-turning, creative, liberating, and healing way of Jesus. And yet, most pastors I spoke with seemed drained for all the wrong reasons—spending enormous energy on personality conflicts, anxiety about finances and denominational reputations, chronic frustration with institutional inertia and bureaucracy. With congregations resistant to change, whatever gospel-inspired wild ideas they may once have had, seemed to be squeezed out of them.
I remember speaking with one pastor who saw imminent death for his church. I asked if they had ever considered doing something experimental, like turning the church building into a homeless shelter or replacing liturgical services with theological art classes, since they had nothing to lose? He just shook his head at me.
Additionally, their lives seemed so boring. I was frightened by the level of repression I saw—from inhibited self-expression in terms of dress and speech, to vague theological and political stances, to the lack of sensuality and sexuality they were allowed to embody. Even many of my more dynamic classmates and professors seemed to accept this reality. Our best hope, it seemed, was to land a job at a flagship church where we would have resources to do some interesting work, along with prestige and financial security.
Hence my reconsideration of this whole pastor thing.
Fast forward to the present day, and I am completely in love with my job, which is … a local church pastor! Well, technically my titles are: Minister of Listening, Convener, and Collaboratory Co-Director.
Six years ago, I got my first job description, Minister of Listening, when I moved to South Seattle with a mandate from the local United Methodist conference to start a new church. As a newcomer to a phenomenally diverse neighborhood in a hyper secular region, I knew that deep listening would need to precede any action. I met countless people and listened to their stories, hopes, and doubts on the way to slowly gathering a group around a set of core values and visions.
My second job description, Convener, emerged as a congregation gradually formed. I saw my role as bringing people together, casting vision, and holding space for different voices and the direction of the Holy Spirit. My congregation did not grant me authority because I had credentials and external approval—they trusted me to the extent that I earned it by making myself present, being as authentic and vulnerable as I hoped they would be, and offering something that that was useful and provocative.
Now, we care for each other, we make decisions together, we are a community of love and friendship (yes, some of the folks in my church are also my friends!), not just a formal association. I think Jesus might have said something about being friends…
Three years ago I acquired my third title, Collaboratory Co-Director, when the congregation partnered with a secular artist collective to create a “social change incubator” called the Hillman City Collaboratory. We leased and refurbished a formerly run-down building on a lively intersection. We use it for our morning and afternoon services on Sundays, but for the rest of the week the Collaboratory serves as a community beehive where activists, artists, entrepreneurs, folks in homelessness, spiritual pioneers, and regular folks cross-pollinate and strive “to make the world a more human place,” to use the words of James Baldwin plastered in our front windows.
I help run the Collab and in doing so I’ve come full circle to my Minister of Listening roots, because I spend at least as much time each week in quality conversations with folks outside the church as those within it.
For anyone reading this whose pastoral calling is tinged with trepidation for the reasons I first felt, know that your “yes” doesn’t have to be tied to a boring, stressed out, repressed life. Those pressures are still there—I am not yet a fully liberated, authentic leader—but they are not dominant. You can do it differently.
In seminary, what saved me and my pastoral vocation was learning about churches breaking the mold (thanks in part to support from the Forum for Theological Education and Beatitudes Society), weekly visits at the local Catholic Worker house, and joining a truly vulnerable small group. I also found friends determined to live their callings differently, like Scott Claassen, a pastor who declared a year-long Carbon Sabbath; like Rahiel Tesfamariam, a minister-activist-journalist who built UrbanCusp; like Neichelle Guidry-Jones who founded ShePreaches, a network to support African-American woman preachers.
Even in the institutional church structure, you can find a place at the table… you just might have to bring your own Tupperware® and coffee. Definitely bring your own coffee.
Rev. John Helmiere is the founding minister of Valley & Mountain. Originally from Tampa, FL, John has a B.A. in Religion from Dartmouth and a Master of Divinity from Yale. He previously worked at Glide Church San Francisco, Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, and Community of Faith UMC in Clermont, Florida. John is active with numerous local non-profits such as the Rainier Valley Food Bank, Puget Sound SAGE, and Working Washington. He has been awarded a Beatitudes Society Fellowship, given annually to eight emerging progressive Christian leaders from around the country.