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Becoming Shameless

A Conversation with Nadia Bolz-Weber

Snake Lake - Rebecca Chaperon

A decade ago, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber launched the wildly successful House for All Sinners and Saints to have a church where she “didn’t have to ‘nicen’ myself up.” Now, she’s given that church up to make sex safe from religion.

Where does “shameless” come from?

Well, partly it’s just a word that people have used to describe me a lot, and I like to reclaim and redefine things, rather than to just reject them. For instance, my first memoir is titled Pastrix, and pastrix is literally a term of insult that conservative Christian bloggers gave me when I first became a public figure, because they didn’t think I deserved the title Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, ’cause I was a girl. And women aren’t supposed to be pastors.

Now to be clear, there are a million reasons I shouldn’t be a pastor, but being a girl isn’t one of them. So they gave me a term of insult, pastrix, right? And I titled my first memoir Pastrix, which was on the New York Times best-seller list, so if you’re keeping track, I won that round.

Sounds like it.

So “shameless” can be seen in different ways. One, when people say, “Man, they’re shameless,” I think it means that these are people who exhibit a freedom, and an unself-consciousness, compared to other people. And then I think shameless can also mean shame less, like “Let’s just do the shame thing a little less, now.” 

So it has dual meanings. But for me, since I was writing my new book about the harmful messages the church has given people about sex, I really wanted to get at the issue of shame, and how so often the origin of shame is really fucked-up messages that we’ve received and that have entered our bodies. 

Photo Credit: Paul Miller

What about culture? Culture gives people messages about sex that can end up being harmful.

Yes. But here’s the difference: The culture around us, as harmful as its messages around sex may be, has never implied that the creator of the universe is somehow disgusted by the fact that I, as a 50-year-old woman, have cellulite. When the church gives you messages, they’re like, “God is somehow disappointed if you’re a teenager and you think sexual thoughts, or if you masturbate, or if you and your girlfriend fool around before you’re married.” Those messages go into your source code. Digging out the shameful messages that are given to us in God’s name is a really particular type of work. 

Where did that start for you? 

It’s been an issue throughout my work as a pastor, because so many of my parishioners at House for All Sinners and Saints are queer folks. Most of them had evangelical backgrounds like mine. And I would hear so many stories of the difficulties that they had connecting to their own sexual natures or feeling free in their bodies. So, I spent a year and a half interviewing my parishioners, asking them three questions: What messages did the church give you about sex and your body? How did those messages affect you? And how have you navigated your adult life? Some of those stories ended up in the book. And it’s not hard to draw a direct line between the harm people experience in their bodies and their spirits, and the messages the church gave them. It’s a straight line. 

And so I’m saying, “Look, if the messages of the church are harming people, we should rethink those messages.” That’s the basic idea.

How did your own fundamentalist background shape you?

The thing that fundamentalism gives you is really dualistic thinking: Ultimately, everything is black or white. People are either saved, or they’re lost. They’re either good or they’re bad. There’s no subtlety, and there’s certainly no room for paradox, within that thinking. And so, if you’re raised in that, like I was, and you come to a certain age when a lot of the things they’re telling you don’t seem to line up with your experience of people in the world, you have a crisis or a choice, or both. 

I mean, when I finally met gay people, I compared what I was told about them to my lived experience of them as people, and I thought, These two things don’t match. So, what was I gonna do? Discard my experience of reality so that I could embrace a doctrine? I can’t do that. Doctrine has to line up with actual reality. 

And so I’m saying, “Look, if the messages of the church are harming people, we should rethink those messages.” 

Did it work?

When you’re given that dualistic thinking, it’s easy to think that if you stop going to that church, you’ll stop being a fundamentalist. But that was not my experience. I just replaced the Christian doctrine with radical leftist politics, and I had the exact same structure in my thinking. Either you were down with the cause, or you were the enemy. You were either good or bad, you were either right or wrong. You can take the girl out of fundamentalism, but it’s very hard to take the fundamentalism out of the girl. It was a while before I was able to approach any kind of non-dualistic thinking.

Then one of my former parishioners who had just come out of fundamentalism came to me. She was still very angry about her upbringing. She would see things online—like her parents’ friends who post really conservative Christian nonsense—and she’d get really triggered by it. And she said, “Nadia, you don’t seem to be angry anymore about your upbringing.” And I said, “No.” 

I’ll tell you the moment I realized I was free—truly free from it. It was as soon as I could look back on my fundamentalist upbringing and not view it dualistically. When I was able to identify parts of it that were actually beautiful. When I could look and see shades of gray, and I could see things that were good among the things that were actually horrible. 

And when I could say, “There were some things that were beautiful and good, and that didn’t feel like it was a betrayal of the parts of me that were wounded by the stuff that was fucked up.” That’s when I was free. 

Ritual - Rebecca Chaperon

How did you come up with the guts to start a church?

Well, it’s the only way I could possibly be employable—to create a situation in which I have a job. So, I wanted to start a church I would feel comfortable showing up to as my whole self. I was not going to bracket out parts of my personality, or parts of my story. I wasn’t gonna change the way I talk. I wasn’t gonna ‘nicen’ up myself in order to show up for spiritual community. And I didn’t want anyone else to, either. And so, the only way that was gonna happen was starting from scratch. 

It was really the hardest thing I ever did. It started with eight people in my living room, and we would just share a meal together once a month, and talk about our lives, and say a prayer at the end. It was really simple.

And then we eventually had a liturgy, where we started inviting other people—but it was hard, hard work. And there was a huge emotional cost to it as well because it’s hard to really extract your ego out of the process. There’s a work that only people who have a particular type of charisma can do in the world. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, in order for me to be healthy, and in order for that church to be healthy, I had to sort of die to everything that allowed me to be the one that began it in the first place—if that makes sense.

I had to try to constantly differentiate myself from the church, even though it had my aesthetic and my humor and my theology all over it. I had to know that there’s a difference between what’s going on in the church and me as a person, or my own value. For the first couple of years, as ridiculous as this sounds, it felt like every Sunday I was throwing my own birthday party, and waiting to see who liked me enough to show up. It was awful. 

But I felt like I was being used to create something that wanted to be created, and I happened to be the schmuck who did the thing. Like that church was wanting to be created, you know? It was wanting to be born. 

Was “being used” a positive thing, or a negative thing, or both?

Absolutely both. I had only one pious thought in seminary, which was I just want God to use me. And now I feel used by God. I feel like I’m God’s bitch. Like, in more than one way. I’m the one who gets kind of used, and also, I’m kind of a bitch at the same time. 

How did you step into this moment of actually having a church?

Well, my denomination had a space that we were able to share with another community for a couple of years, and then we moved in with this other church. In terms of space, we’ve always strived and hoped to never own property. That was always our goal. 

That’s a philosophical goal?

No, I think it’s a practical goal. Because, you know, the community doesn’t have a lot of money. It’s mostly composed of the overeducated, voluntarily poor. And so, if we had to raise money to be able to maintain or buy a building, it would be all over for us. Not owning allowed us to be nimble. And 11 years later, there’s probably 600 members of the church. 

Vessel -Rebecca Chaperon

That’s a very big church.

One of the bigger churches in our synod. And it’s broken so many of the rules. Because, for instance, we don’t have a committee system, and we’ve never had a five-year plan. We’ve never had a vision statement. All the shit that people are convinced is the way you have to run an organization like that, we just aren’t really interested in. We just tried to pay attention to the culture of the people there. They’re committed, but obligation is a huge drag. So how do you be a high-commitment, low-obligation community? 

For example, we’ll have people show up to plan Ash Wednesday who’ve never in their lives been to an Ash Wednesday service. And that keeps us honest, because we have to really talk about what the whole things means. It can’t be rote anymore. We get these amazing ideas from new people all the time. If we went and said, “We need to have a worship committee, it’s a two-year commitment, and it’s the second Tuesday of every month, for two hours,” we’d have zero people. As it is now, we often have 20 people show up. 

Another thing we did is to print worship booklets that contain the whole liturgy. When you come in, you just grab the booklet out of the basket, or there’s probably 15 of them laid out on a table. And someone’s there asking, “Do you want to take one of the leadership positions in the liturgy?”

That means you can walk in—having never even been to a Christian service in your life—and be asked if you want to serve communion. Or if you want to read the Gospel. Or do you want to do the benediction. We’re saying, “Just because you walked in this room, we trust you with the holy things.” 

Is that a basic principle of the church?

Yes. I’d say one of the most important, most spiritual principles of that church is that we’re anti-excellence and pro-participation. We don’t care about things having to be perfect or excellent—we want everyone to be able to participate. Our culture is so much about worthiness and status, and proving yourself. We’re not into that here. We don’t care.

And also, for me to be able to say, “Hey, if something doesn’t go well in the liturgy, like something just totally falls flat, or it’s really awkward, that’s not a reflection on me as the leader.” So therefore, I have no anxiety about it, and everyone else gets to relax, too. When things don’t go well, everyone just starts laughing. I think that is invitational, it’s welcoming. I think a lot of communities don’t understand the difference between being friendly and being welcoming. Just because a community is friendly doesn’t mean they’re welcoming. 

We’re saying, “Just because you walked in this room, we trust you with the holy things.

So what’s your goal?

Freedom. I feel like we get really trapped in our reactions to things. Our reactions often come from a lower part of our brain, and they define how we experience ourselves and others, and the events in our lives. To me, freedom is going, “Yeah, I might have that reaction. I might start there, but I don’t have to stay there.” Just personality, and wiring-wise, my first reaction to almost everything is “Fuck you.” 

Honest to God, I almost always start there, but I almost never stay there. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been sober and in the program for 26 years, and I went to seminary, and I’m a clergywoman, and I practice yoga—none of that shit matters. My first reaction is always my first reaction. So, if I have to hold myself to the standard of “Hey, you’re only developing and growing in maturity as a human being if you stop having that reaction,” I would never be happy with myself. Instead, I’m going, “Hey, that’s my wiring, man.” 

There’s freedom in not having to stay so bound up in personality all the time. It’s the same with forgiveness.

How so?

Look, there’s only one reason I have any interest in forgiveness: It’s not because I want to be a good person—fuck that. I want to be a free person. That’s all. I just want freedom. I have a video that went viral last summer, where I was talking about forgiveness. I think 40 million people watched it. And I was in the Seattle airport, and this guy goes, “You’re the forgiveness pastor!”

And I said, “No, I’m the shitty-at-forgiveness-but-the-desperate pastor—sorry for the confusion.” I’ve got no wisdom for you, you know what I mean? I’m no expert, I just want to be free. I want to be free from all that. 

How does that work in church?

When I was doing pastoral care for my parishioners, they would come bound up in a story they’re telling themselves about their lives—“My mother’s doing this, and my boss is doing that” or “My lover’s doing this.” I’d muster as much compassion as I could for, like, 10 minutes, while they’re telling the story they’ve probably told exactly the same way to 10 other people. They’re bound up in it.

And then I just look at them and I go, “I understand those feelings, and I can feel how tied up you are about all this. And as your pastor, I want you to have freedom. That’s all, I just want you to be free from it.” So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is you can be free from it. The bad news is you have to start telling yourself a completely different story.

If we keep telling an old story, it will feel good for a minute—but only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a minute, you know? So eventually, to have freedom, I hate to tell you, but you have to look at what your part is in that story. If you look at that stuff, with as much honesty as you can, you have a fighting chance at freedom. If not, you just don’t.

Memory Light - Rebecca Chaperon

So eventually, to have freedom, I hate to tell you, but you have to look at what your part is in that story.

Where does a sermon come from? 

Well, no matter what space I’m in, I ask myself the same question, which is, “What’s the most pastoral thing I can say to them? What’s real in their lives, but not really being spoken out loud? What’s hard, or what do they struggle with? Or what would actual hope that’s not just vapid optimism sound like? What real, rooted, solid, perennial truth can they be reminded of in this moment, that would matter?”

So I think I ask that question no matter who I’m addressing, and I try to be faithful to that question being my question.

What grounds you in all of this?

Oh my gosh, you know what? A huge part of my spirituality is early-American hymns. I mean, hymns were my first language: I was raised with four-part harmony, a cappella hymn singing. So even if I don’t know whether I believe in the theology, those hymns are my soul’s first language, and I will always love them—always. I get a feeling of transcendence when I am singing four-part harmony, early-American hymns.

So at this point, House for All Sinners and Saints is a cappella. It might be the only a cappella Lutheran church in the country. And the thing about singing in harmony is that you can’t do it by yourself—it actually creates community when we sing together. When you sing together, you’re literally breathing together. And when you have a whole community doing it, it doesn’t matter if there are people who can’t sing well. We used to say, “If you feel like you don’t sing well, then at least make up for quality with quantity. If you can’t sing well, at least sing loud. There are enough good singers in this congregation that the whole will be fine.”

You left your church to avoid “founder’s syndrome”—so it could grow beyond you. But how does that feel to you?

It’s hard. I started the church I wanted to go to, and now I can’t go. Because when you’re a pastor, you’re holding an office on behalf of the people, and you have to leave enough room for the next person to hold that office. So, maybe after a year I might be able to pop in now and again, and just be part of the group, but for a while, they need to be House for All Sinners and Saints without me.

What’s next?

This goes back to what I was talking about when we first started, which is to find some part of the symbol system that formed you. Even if you don’t ever want to have anything to do with Christianity again, is there a way to go back and say, “But this one prayer that my grandmother always prayed still really is meaningful to me”? Or, “I still have this odd devotion to Mary, even though I can’t be part of the Catholic church anymore”? It’s a reclamation project—spiritual reclamation—that I feel is part of our healing, and our wholeness.

So if hearing my message, or reading my books, or watching my video gives people permission to do that, even if they’ll never be part of the church again, that to me is an offering of healing, and that’s the work that I feel really passionate about now.

Stephen Kiesling is editor in chief of S&H.

Rethinking God’s Plan (A Shameless excerpt)

Meghan, a large trans woman with long, thin hair and a face and figure that she admits do not allow her to “pass,” has enough social anxiety to make sitting at a communal table a non-starter, so she usually makes her own place on the edge of the stage. Some Sundays, rather than join the fray, I hang with her and talk comic books.

That day, as our legs hung off the stage, I brought up something that had been on my mind lately. “Hey, Meghan, I read my old Christian sex-ed book this morning for the first time in maybe 40 years.” She laughed, and I went on. “It taught me that God’s plan is for everyone to be a heterosexual, cis-gender Christian who never has sex with anyone until they marry their one true love and make babies.”

We both laughed. Then I shook my head. “I mean, do I think there are genuinely those kinds of people out there?”

Meghan held up her hand and touched her thumb to the rest of her purple nail-polished fingers. “Sure there are. And this is how small that circle is.”

If you were to draw a circle that represents all the people on the planet, and then inside it draw another small circle to represent the people who live according to “God’s plan,” then, well, very few people on the planet fit in that circle. Meghan doesn’t fit in that circle. I don’t fit in that circle. Also not included in the circle are divorced people, people in unhappy marriages, people who have sex before marriage, people who masturbate, asexuals, gay people, bisexuals, people who are not Christian, people who are gender non-binary. . . .

If that’s “God’s plan,” then God planned poorly.

Maybe you don’t fit into that circle, either. God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the center-pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends to exclude us. Many of us were taught that if you do not fit inside the circle of the church’s behavioral codes, God is not pleased with you, so we whittled ourselves down to a shape that could fit those teachings, or we denied those parts of ourselves entirely. The lusty parts. The kinky parts. The gay parts. The unwanted-pregnancy parts. The unfulfilled parts.

But our sexual and gender expressions are as integral to who we are as our religious upbringings are. To separate these aspects of ourselves—to separate life as a sexual being from a life with God—is to bifurcate our psyche, like a musical progression that never comes to resolution. . . .

—Nadia Bolz-Weber

Excerpted from Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, by Nadia Boltz. Published by Convergent Books