It’s International Buy Your Priest a Beer Day, and I’m feeling like the woman who recently needed to lash out against Instagram white woman wine culture. I used to love beer, the darker and stouter the better. I genuinely miss the taste of it, but it’s also true that beer was part of my cool pastor image. I was the pastor you could get a beer with, and if you ever did, I would drop the f-bomb early on in our conversation to let you know that you were safe with me.
But all the time I was doing that, I was performing for you. I was pretending to be “authentic.” And the anxiety of knowing how likely you were to reject me and randomly stop coming to church after I had poured hours of my time into building a relationship with you was the biggest reason I would fill up multiple Olivia Pope-size wineglasses every night so I could sleep. God invited me to stop drinking on March 16th, but I’m still young enough in my sobriety journey to blame it all on you for driving me to drink.
I understand it wasn’t about me. It was travel soccer. It was the way the church has treated gay people. It was feeling like you could probably do better on a mat in a beautiful park doing yoga, and you wouldn’t have to dress up or make meaningless small-talk with people you’ve never gotten to know despite seeing them once a week for the past thirty years.
I get it. I just walked around a prayer labyrinth, and I feel way more connected with God right now than I ever have on the nineties-era pastel carpet of a United Methodist sanctuary. I go to my neighborhood Catholic mass every morning I get up early enough. I don’t know a single person in that room. But it completely changes my day when I do it.
And here’s the thing about Catholic masses. They are so unmarketable. The homilies are banal at best. Sometimes there’s incense; sometimes there’s chanting; sometimes the priest is tone-deaf and has no business singing. We say the same damn thing every morning. But at least thirty people are there every day in my neighborhood Catholic church, which means that there might well be thirty people there every day in other neighborhood Catholic parish too.
Catholics show up every day, and I’m supposed to be thrilled if you’ve got an open slot in your hectic Sunday calendar once a month. No, I’m not necessarily talking to you specifically. I know it’s complicated. Maybe specific things that happened are the reason you can’t show up. Maybe you’ve been spiritually abused. A lot of people have. So don’t own this if it doesn’t apply to you.
I’m talking to those of you who simply suck at being intentional about your lives, knowing full well that I suck at being intentional worse than you do. I get so frustrated when I have to assign specific tasks to people to get them to come to church, but I know that I probably wouldn’t go if I wasn’t paid to preach the word and bless the crackers and grape juice.
Still I wanted to tell you two things you can do for your pastors that are infinitely better than buying us a beer. It’s very simple. Just show up and be real. Every time you show up at church, you make everyone else in the room believe in Jesus just a little bit more. The more your pastors believe in Jesus, the less annoying and fake we’ll be, because we won’t feel like we have to be incredible genius marketers to make you stay.
And every time you say something real in church, you become the reason that the kingdom of God smashes through our social niceties. The most important members of any church are people who make everyone else feel awkward because they don’t understand our sophisticated social taboos. Please take us off script so that we can stop performing. And please don’t leave if it gets awkward. Awkwardness is the beginning of authentic community.
When you run away from every hint of awkwardness, then a satanic voice gets into your pastor’s head to let us know that the reason our church attendance is plummeting is because our gospel isn’t as compelling as the evangelical megachurch (where there are way more dating prospects). Then we start obsessing about how we can be more like the evangelicals.
We rack our brains in our staff meetings trying to find the perfect viral hashtag for our next sermon series. We get bizarre props to put up front for object lessons. We come up with clever discipleship challenges and other gimmicky ways to manipulate you into going all-in. We don’t do these gimmicks because we want to be sleazy, inauthentic hucksters; we do them because we need to file reports with our higher ups that show how hard we’re trying.
The most infuriating thing about being a pastor is when you stop coming, I’m the one who gets labeled an “ineffective pastor.” It’s completely out of my control. I can give it my genuine best. I can anoint every pew in my church with oil (I’ve done it). I can throw myself face down at the altar the night before and beg God in a spiritual language whose words I don’t even know. But the harder I try, the more anxious I come across, which is a bigger turnoff for you, which makes you less likely to stick around, which makes me ditch the Olivia Pope-sized wineglasses and resort to straight bourbon.
I don’t care where you show up. Just find a place where you can, and build a community of people there who know that they can count on each other to show up and be real. I happen to believe that communities built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ are the most able to create that kind of synergy, and I will continue to believe that till the day that I die, no matter how many Christian communities fail around me.
I’m now part of a community of people who have very busy lives, but they carve out the time in their schedule to show up for a meeting at least several times a week, sometimes more than once a day. Because we know we’re screwed if we try to face the world on our own. It’s such a gift to find a group of people who know they’re screwed without each other. At one point in time, Christians may have actually believed that. The evangelicals still do.
I’m trying to learn how to accept your rejection. It’s basically the biggest hurdle in my sobriety journey. But I read something today at our meeting that blew my mind: “Only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength.”
It made me realize that every time you make me feel like a sucky pastor, I can use it as one more reason to give up trying to sociologically engineer a church through my sheer willpower and throw myself more completely into helpless dependence upon God.
The joy that I discover every time I take a few hours of vacation from trying to market Jesus to you is way more wonderful than the fleeting satisfaction I feel on the rare occasion that I feel like I’m doing a good job. When I’m actually able to find the joy that has nothing to do with results, I realize that I’m actually invincible even if I end up having to find another line of work.
So come to think of it, keep being fickle and flaky. Keep saying you’re coming when you aren’t. Because every time you reject your pastors, we are driven closer to our rock bottom. And that’s how we become like Obi-Wan, more powerful than you can possibly imagine.