I was sitting alone in a church pew as a visitor, newly retired after 30 years of parish ministry. We were up north in Michigan for a family vacation. Everyone else was on the lake, but I had not yet shed the habit of being in church on a Sunday. Spending a professional life centered on Sundays, certain rhythms became embedded: not going out on Saturday nights so as to be well-rested on Sunday; awaking extra-early on Sunday mornings; knowing all the dates of Sundays for the next 6 months; and being with a body of people on Sunday morning. Not being in Sunday church was a rather disorienting concept.
In this particular congregation the prelude was pre-recorded organ music. The dated sound system didn’t do it any favors. The pastor, a stranger to me, entered from the rear of the sanctuary and rather awkwardly lurched his way to the chancel. He had a disability of some sort, which also affected his speech. I had to listen carefully to catch each word of his brilliantly crafted sermon. Afterwards I wept as I spoke to the pastor and told him how much the worship service meant to me. One aspect that had moved me so deeply was the inherent inclusivity of this congregation; it seemed there was a natural acceptance of all that is joyous with no need to be perfect. The lay reader, who had an excellent voice and timbre, had a hard time saying “Ahimilech,” which she laughed about after the service; the music, which would have been endlessly critiqued in many churches, didn’t stop the people from happily warbling along; and the leadership of a pastor with a disability was a new and moving experience.
I ruminated on what it would be like to be a pastor who did not appear invincible. In almost any congregation where I’ve worshiped, there is a value placed on the appearance of the pastor. Congregations typically want someone who appears vibrant, strong, and competent (to the point of perfection). What would it be like to be unable to hide the soft, vulnerable parts of oneself?
Of course, in almost any occupation appearances matter to some degree, but is it my imagination that pastors live under an additional degree of scrutiny? Early in his career, my father (an electrical engineer) became close to a pastor. I have a feeling that this proximity led him to say long ago, “I think it would be terrible to be a pastor. In any other occupation if you do your job well, people don’t care about the rest of your life. A plumber, for instance: as long as the pipes get fixed people don’t care about his flaws or what he does with his time-off. But a pastor gets scrutinized as a whole person. Every aspect of a pastor’s personality gets evaluated constantly.”
Many years later, after I had entered the ministry, my parents told me about inviting their pastor to see a musical production with them. I made a comment that the pastor would be working when he was with them, quietly implying, “Your pastor is aware that you’ll be evaluating him when you’re together.” My parents had a strong reaction: “It was a free night out! The play would be funny! That’s not work!” I persisted and said, “Well, let’s say that there’s something raunchy in the play. If the pastor laughs at ribald humor, there’s a risk. On the one hand, you might think he’s cool; on the other hand, you might think he’s creepy. And, whatever your impression is, you’re likely to share it with other parishioners.” My mom said, “Oh! I know he’d be okay with it because he was out for dinner with Benny and Phyllis, and he chuckled at a dirty joke.” “Exactly,” I said.
It’s these kinds of calculations that I may have felt more keenly than many pastors. Maybe it had something to do with the community in which I was raised. Maybe it had something to do with entering the pastorate when ordained women were a rarity. Maybe it’s my personality. I know that my congregants were not at fault; they were wonderful, bright, responsive people and I felt genuinely close to a good number of them; “known” by a trusted few. Overall, though, there was a pressure that I constantly placed upon myself to always be the ideal person.
When, at the church up north, I experienced a pastor and a congregation who had a broader view of what “excellence” entailed; I began to feel how much I had imprisoned myself (with my own expectations) as well as the expectations I thought the congregation had of me.
After that church visit, I returned to my family at the lake. I cried as I relayed the embodied, inclusive worship to my family. My adult daughter commented that I was just beginning my “re-cry-erment.” She was referring to the same reaction I had the previous week when I was a visitor in a church closer to home.
July 4, 2021 was my first Sunday of retirement. I had cried on my way to church, during worship, and after. Tears came when an African-American member led the congregation in an acapella version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”; he slowly, rhythmically sang out the phrase “Land where my fathers died” in such a way that one couldn’t help but think of the thousands of Africans who were tortured, lynched, or died demeaned and unrecognized. The pastor’s sermon urged the progressive congregation to love our country by helping it live up to its ideals. The inherent acceptance of all races, genders and sexual orientations evoked tears of joy (for the freedom) and sadness (for the rarity of such places).
Obviously, my tears were a mix of a lot of pent-up, not-yet-named feelings—some of which I have already described. But what I named in that moment was discernible relief–relief from carrying the weight of the pastorate, including Sunday morning responsibilities. There is both a literal and figurative weight to putting on a robe and stole. They are identifiers to convey leadership, service, compassion, acceptance, humility, vulnerability, and love. Pouring myself into pastoral care, worship leadership, and teaching was fulfilling, energizing, and utterly exhausting. I had grown accustomed to church rhythms and its demands, but I had not recognized how draining it was until I was free from it.
With this new-found freedom, I was eager for a taste of what worship was like in other congregations. I visited a wide variety of churches considered to be conservative, moderate and liberal; in each place I experienced some joy and new insights. I also encountered a lot of fodder for processing 30 years’ worth of life in church leadership. Each worship experience challenged me to reflect on my time in the pastorate. Without the pressure of the daily demands of ministry, I now had the mental and emotional space to ask questions, address old wounds, and evaluate my regrets. I came to realize one of my first tasks in retirement would be working through the past.
As I was doing that, I had a desire to embed myself in a church where I felt a sense of “home,” so I returned to that little church up north with the canned music and the brilliant pastor with a disability. Through Zoom.
I became a regular Sunday morning “Zoomer.” The pastor up north scratches my theological itch. He delves into scripture from the viewpoint of the underdog; he ponders the complexity of unanswerable theological questions and articulates various frameworks for better understanding them; he is able to question everything, while stubbornly claiming the identifier of “Christian”. However, it was clear to me that driving four hours round-trip each Sunday was prohibitive. Even in good weather I wouldn’t want to spend that much time commuting.
Transcending space is a tremendous benefit for Zoomers. Zoomers are able to find a church home literally anywhere in the world. During the pandemic the congregation I served spent one year exclusively on Zoom. There was a woman from Japan who regularly zoomed in to our worship service and the social time conversation we held afterwards. She had attended the Zoom funeral of a parishioner who had once been a missionary in Japan. Something clicked for her and she felt so at home that she chose to worship with us weekly. In spite of the distance, we were able to get to know her through our post-worship conversations.
Even as I decided to Zoom with the church two hours away, I knew that churches closer to home could offer many of the same qualities. But that was complicated for me. During my in-person church visits I hadn’t been able to separate my role as a pastor from the experience of being a lay worshiper. Though I didn’t need to carry my pastoral persona into congregations that I visited, I naturally cloaked myself in a metaphorical stole and robe—especially when I was in locations where people knew me in that role. In those churches I felt incapable of not being “on.” The anonymity of Zoom offered freedom from my former professional role.
Zoom anonymity is a relatively new opportunity for a number of people, many of whom privately suffered in the pew when Zoom was not a thing. Prior to Zoom, those who were physically limited endured the pain of movement as well as the pain of sitting in a pew for an hour. For those experiencing incontinence, it was taxing to worship in-person. Finding the right place to sit and fearing the need to make a sudden departure was preoccupying. Those with mobility issues often found it a great gift to not get dressed, out the door with one’s walker, and transported into a new space. And for those with physical limitations who are confined to their room or home, Zoom opened a door long-closed to them, making it possible to join a congregation of their choice. They no longer had limited options of famous television preachers.
There are additional barriers that can make the sanctuary difficult for some. During my pastorates it was not unusual to receive the confessions of parishioners who felt unable to be physically present in worship. A common cause was overwhelming grief following the death of a spouse. Going to church now enveloped them with a profound sense of loneliness. The rhythm of attending church with one’s partner—sometimes a 40 to 60 year habit—became so deeply embedded that attending alone magnified grief to an unbearable degree. Churches are typically family-friendly, catering to young people, couples, and especially married couples with children. When one is newly single (widowed or divorced), it can sting to be surrounded in a place where it seems everyone else has family at their side. There is also something mysterious about carrying one’s great grief into the sacred space of the sanctuary. For some, connecting one’s tremendous grief with a space that typically brought solace can feel like whiplash. For others, the tender open-heartedness they typically felt in the sanctuary causes a vulnerable sense that they might just fall apart in a public setting. These people were unnerved by the thought of becoming a public spectacle. (No matter how many people would tell them “It’s okay!”)
People who are immuno-compromised might have their physician say to them, “The most dangerous space for you to enter is the church. Church people are inclined to give hugs, shake hands, and draw close without asking permission. That high degree of physicality doesn’t typically occur in most other public places.” It takes a strong personality to appropriately ward off physical proximity with members of one’s own church family.
Another barrier to physical church attendance can be when someone is experiencing an intense phase in life and finds it overwhelming to repeatedly answer the same questions from well-meaning congregants. This can be especially experienced when one’s child or partner is going through an illness or significant loss. “How are you/they doing?” is an act of care that might require too much energy for some folks to muster a response to when they are already drained and exhausted.
Social anxiety, extreme introversion, and depression have long been reasons that some people have avoided worshiping in-person. Zoom can be helpful for persons with realities such as these. For all of these reasons, I perceive worship over Zoom as a good thing.
My own role as a Zoomer, however, is challenged by this awareness: were I still pastoring a church, I would want to prod able-bodied Zoomers into the church building. I’ve always believed that each person in the sanctuary mysteriously and positively contributes to the atmosphere of worship. Their very presence makes an impact. For those who are able to attend, in-person worship offers a stronger experience of the faith community, opportunities for corporate singing, breathing in the aura of the moment which others share, and engaging in conversation with folks one might never see during the week.
Prior to the pandemic, while immersed in the rhythm of church life, I found myself casting some degree of judgment on people who would “take the summer off from church”. I bemoaned the reality that Sunday morning soccer matches were taking youth and their families away from worship, while also recognizing that the clock could not be turned back. There were many Sundays when some aspect of worship was particularly gratifying or moving and I was aware that those who were absent would never be a part of that formative, corporate moment.
The years of the pandemic caused some degree of upheaval for many churches, and for many reasons. In some congregations, over a year of Zooming pushed many people into a new habit of eschewing church even when it became safe to return. If this is a problem, it is most keenly felt by those leaders and congregants who remain committed to in-person attendance and grieve the loss of “their people.”
In spite of knowing all of this, my heart is grateful for the opportunity to worship on Zoom. It has given me respite; it has kept me lightly connected to a congregation; it has nurtured my ponderings of the mysteries of God; it has given me a glimmer of hope for the institution of the church. It has given me time to become a more dimensional person whose identity is not solely centered in the pastorate. I expect that at some point I will return to in-person worship, wearing just my regular clothes and contributing to the reign of God in a different way. But maybe not.