Nadia Bolz-Weber is a heavily tatted and sometimes profane Lutheran pastor. Her take on herself can be summed up this way: “All of the things that make me seem ‘not like a pastor’ are what allow me to be certain people’s pastor.”
Hard to argue with that. Clearly one size does not fit all. Polls show that while church membership is eroding, many people — especially younger people — consider themselves to be spiritual.
Bolz-Weber brings her unique view of ministry to Lampeter-Strasburg High School Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 28. Her visit is sponsored by the Parish Resource Center.
“She speaks to the changing church,” said Kate Good, PRC’s executive director. “She is seen as an authentic voice in Christianity.”
Bolz-Weber was involved in drugs and alcohol as a teenager and became sober at age 22. More than a decade later she graduated from college and divinity school and was ordained in the Lutheran church.
While Bolz-Weber’s approach appeals to many on the fringes of society, Good said PRC members, who are largely from mainline and Mennonite churches, were the catalysts who asked to bring Bolz-Weber to Lancaster.
“She has a certain image,” Good said, “but the number of ‘proper church ladies’ who requested her suggests her message is so deep.”
Her book, “Accidental Saints, Finding God in all the Wrong People,” is a New York Times best seller.
She is the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.
The following has been edited for length.
What’s the story with your tattoos?
On my left arm is the liturgical year so there’s the image of creation and there’s Gabriel ... the image for Christmas, then Jesus in the desert for Lent, the crucifixion, Good Friday and Mary and the women at the empty tomb and then Mary and the apostles.
What is it about Lutheran theology that interests you?
To me, it’s an accurate description of reality rather than some odd ideology that doesn’t match reality. What I mean is that the Lutheran belief system says that everybody is simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both all the time. To me, that describes actual people. That describes why every person has the capacity for harm and has the capacity for helping. Other theological systems either describe people as completely depraved horrible sinners or have the lofty notion of Christian perfection or enlightenment. I don’t find any of these things accurate.
Your approach to religion has been described as progressive. How would you describe it?
I think my congregation is socially progressive, but we’re actually more traditional liturgically than most Lutheran churches. We are socially inclusive. We have every different kind of person you can imagine there. Everyone is welcome to bring their whole self. We don’t have a policy that you have to have a certain type of lifestyle or a certain type of ethics that you live by. The liturgy is very traditional and the preaching is very Lutheran.
When preparing to speak at a memorial service for a friend, you said you realized that you might be the person to pastor to diverse groups of people. Was that an epiphany?
I didn’t end up having a calling to serve the church. I don’t actually feel comfortable in most churches to tell you the truth. But I felt called to be a pastor to my people. There are a lot of people out there who don’t feel comfortable in traditional churches but who could still use a pastor and could still use a Christian community. And so, my life’s work became almost like starting a church I’d feel comfortable showing up to and other people would feel comfortable, too.
Is it difficult to pastor to such a diverse group of people?
I don’t know that it’s any more difficult than any other congregation. Pastors struggle with the same things other people struggle with. In churches we often have unreasonable expectations of our clergy. We want them to be some sort of perfected version of ourselves and when they’re not we’re disappointed in them. For the most part, my parishioners don’t do that. They expect me to be honest ... and point to hope that comes from God and not from us. So in some ways, I think it’s easier when you have a church that’s oriented in grace rather than rules or legalisms. People have a lot more grace toward their pastor as well.
Parish Resource Center director Kate Good said that those who most requested your appearance were ‘proper church ladies.’ Does this surprise you?
That’s is something I was absolutely shocked by when it started happening. I was surprised by how many nice church ladies would come and say ‘Oh my gosh, yours was our favorite book we did from our book group.’ I thought, why? It isn’t that their life circumstances exactly matched mine. I think that people that are in really traditional or mainstream settings actually have feelings of alienation that no one in their setting is addressing. Sometimes it takes an honest articulation of what alienation feels like from people who are on the margins in order to speak to an experience that people in the mainstream have. It can only be addressed in a really salient way by people who live it day-to-day.
Where is the Christian church headed?
I think the church is definitely on the trajectory to experience the truth of our beliefs in a real way. And the truth of our beliefs is centered on death and resurrection. I think the church is experiencing death and resurrection right now in a way that can be frustrating and actually terrifying, but is actually the core of our beliefs. Yeah, I think the church can be more real. As somebody who spends time in 12-step meetings, I can tell you that there are more often people speaking honestly about their lives and connecting to God and to one another in church basements than in church sanctuaries. I mean, Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t holding meetings saying ‘Gosh, how can we recruit more members?’ There’s something real there and there’s real hope. People’s lives are actually transformed. Half the time I feel like the church is like the Elks Club with the Eucharist or it can be interchangeable with a conservative social club and I don’t think that’s what Jesus died and rose from the dead for.