Ahead of her appearance at this summer’s Greenbelt Festival, Justin Brierley meets the unorthodoxly orthodox pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints
It was in a comedy club, while giving the eulogy for a friend who had committed suicide, that Nadia Bolz-Weber experienced her epiphany. ‘It was packed with comics and recovering alcoholics and queers and academics…I looked at them and thought, “They don’t have a pastor. Oh no…I wonder if that’s what I’m supposed to be?”’
The story of Bolz-Weber’s calling to ministry is as unique as the woman herself. The church minister from Denver, Colorado, poses a striking presence. Tall, muscular and heavily tattooed, she says that she is more likely to be mistaken for a burlesque dancer than a Lutheran pastor.
Sometime she swears, and confesses to frequently messing up, but explains that she’s not interested in a Christianity that sands down the ‘rough edges’. ‘God’s never seemed terribly interested in using my successes to help people! It’s almost always my failures’, she says.
As a former alcoholic and drug user – demons she battled during her time as a stand-up comedian – she describes herself as ‘in recovery’. Her life before rediscovering an orthodox Christian faith also involved dabbling in Unitarian and Wiccan spirituality. However, she’s keen not to have her story represented as a ‘before-andafter’ testimony. ‘I think God guided me through the whole thing,’ she says. ‘There was wisdom that I got from each of those experiences.’
Today the married mother of two splits her time between being an in-demand speaker and pastoring her local congregation. The House for All Sinners and Saints was planted in 2008 shortly after Bolz-Weber was ordained, and reflects her own unconventional style.
On Sunday afternoons, a congregation of more than 200 squeeze into a rented space at a local Episcopalian church. Despite attracting hipsters, artists and young professionals, there’s not an electric guitar, banjo or Moog organ in sight. Instead they recite psalms and sing old-time spirituals a capella, while celebrating a sacramental liturgy centered around an ‘open table’ for all seekers. Approximately a third of the congregation identify as LGBT.
Her own theology of sexuality would be described by most as ‘liberal’ but she rejects the label herself. She is adamant about the necessity of core creeds – the deity of Christ, his virgin birth and bodily resurrection. These are not mere metaphors, says Bolz-Weber. Only a flesh and blood saviour can speak to drug addicts, drag queens and ‘soccer moms’ alike, all sinful and saintly in equal measure.
You’ve got a lot of tattoos. When did you accumulate them?
I actually started getting tattooed 30 years ago, so I’m an old hand at it! I got my first tattoo when I was 17. At that point it was very uncommon, especially for teenage girls to have tattoos. Now it’s pretty much everywhere.
Do you have any favourites?
My latest one is a cover-up of a tattoo that this junkie gave me when I was lying around in his living room when I was 21. It was a horrible tattoo. It was just black and it wasn’t done well, so it was basically scar tissue. About half of my back is covered with this [new] tattoo of the Annunciation. Tattooing over scar tissue is very painful, but there’s something really symbolic about that particular cover-up for me.
How do people react when you tell them you’re a pastor?
[Laughs] People think I’m lying! Sometimes if people ask me what I do, I’ll invite them to guess. Never once have they guessed ‘Lutheran Pastor’! They’ve guessed tattoo artist or another type of artist. Once someone asked if I was a burlesque dancer. If you’re a middle-aged woman and someone thinks you’re a burlesque dancer that’s not so bad!
I really love the experience of cognitive dissonance. I think that’s what people experience. Then they have to rethink what ‘pastor’ even means and I think that’s great.
You grew up in a conservative Christian family. Did you rebel against that at some point?
Calling it conservative doesn’t actually begin to describe it. It was very sectarian and fundamentalist. They taught that they were the only Christians and that only people in their denomination were going to heaven. You weren’t supposed to have friends or to date outside of the church. When the things that I was taught in the church came into conflict with the actual reality I began to see in the world, I wasn’t willing to dismiss reality.
You had your own cognitive dissonance?
Yes, I did. Eventually I spent ten years out of the Church sojourning in different places.
I had a drug and alcohol problem and I was kind of an urban nomad. I was floating from place to place and I couldn’t keep a job. I think I caused myself and other people harm during that time, but I’m in recovery and one of the things we say in recovery is that we do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it, because at some point we find that no matter how far we have fallen, our experiences can be of service to other people.
That’s what I’ve discovered in my ministry – all of it is used. It’s a shocking thing to experience. God’s never seemed terribly interested in using my successes to help people! It’s almost always my failures.
When I came back to Christianity I came back to a form of the faith that gave me language for what I experienced to be true. One thing that Lutherans teach is that we’re all simultaneously sinner and saint. I felt that described me and the world and other human beings around me. Other Christian theology teaches that Christian perfection is attainable and progressive sanctification, but I’ve never seen that.
You had a spell doing stand-up comedy. How did you get into that?
I was in a feminist performance art collective and they said I was funny and told hilarious stories and that I should do stand-up at the next performance. Pretty soon I was adopted by some headliner comics in town and they got me lots of work. I never really had to fight for it; it was kind of just given to me. Once I hit a spot where I would have to start actually working hard and having ambition in order to get to the next level, I just stopped. I didn’t care that much about it! In the end I became healthier. There’s a darkness to most comics and that’s the reason they see reality from the underside in the way they do.
Was it a good training ground for preaching?
Absolutely! I have no idea how anyone manages to be a preacher without having been a stand-up comic first. Comedy teaches you a lot of things. You’re mining your own life and current events all the time, to try and produce some kind of gold from it. Preachers are doing the same thing. It also taught me about economy of language. My sermons are about 1,500 words long. I don’t ramble and go on or say the same thing in three different ways.
You were still spiritually seeking during this whole period. What did you try?
I tried being a Quaker, I tried being a Unitarian, I tried being Wiccan. I learned something from each of them. I think Christians expect me to characterise that time in my life as misguided. That’s not how I see it at all. I think God guided me through the whole thing. There was wisdom that I got from each of those experiences.
You had a real sense that you were called to ministry when you were asked to speak at a funeral. What happened?
I never had a plan to be a pastor. I could never see myself being hired by some nice, traditional congregation to be their rector or something – no way. But I was religious and I was a person of faith.
I had a friend, PJ, who was a comic and also in recovery – he was in my 12-step meeting. He killed himself and when he died, several friends looked at me and said, ‘You can do the funeral, right?’ My only qualification was that I was the only religious one in my friendship group.
The funeral was at a comedy club in downtown Denver. I looked out when I was giving the eulogy and it was packed with comics and recovering alcoholics and queers and academics…I looked at them and thought, ‘They don’t have a pastor. Oh no…I wonder if that’s what I’m supposed to be?’
It was years later that I ended up going to seminary but that was the first inkling that I had a call to be a pastor to my people wherever they need me.
You went on to plant the House for All Sinners and Saints. You’ve said that it was a ‘weird’ congregation…
I know, it’s such a mess. We’ve never tried to be something, we just happened to be quirky.
Probably 30% of our population is gay, lesbian or transgender but it’s not a population that we’ve tried to ‘reach out’ to, it’s just happened that out of the eight people who started the church with me, three were gay. It’s not like we did market research to figure out what a population wanted and then tried to develop a religious product marketed at them so they could consume it. The church is much bigger than I ever wanted it to be. I hate saying that, it sounds really negative...
You’re not going to put a barricade across the door when you reach a certain number?
No, but we’re out of chairs! We only have 185 chairs, but there are usually about 220 people. We’re looking for bigger spaces, but we really didn’t want to go down the road of building a bigger and bigger sanctuary to fit the bigger and bigger ego of the celebrity pastor. That’s not who we are. Also, I’m a preacher for this community and I have to know their stories in order to be their preacher and there are only so many stories I can know. I find it harder to preach if I don’t know who’s there.
You’re a modern, 21st century person. People might wonder why your church goes back to ancient patterns of liturgy. Why aren’t you developing the rock band and the lighting rig?
A lot of the people in my congregation have so much chaos in their lives that to have this place where the things we’re saying and doing are so deeply rooted brings them a sense of comfort. They know they can step into this stream of the faithful that was flowing long before you got there, and will flow long after you leave.
Our culture is so obsessed with individualism that to have a relief from that for an hour is something people are seeking. One thing I think people have in common in my congregation is they just cannot stand praise choruses! We only sing old hymns. It’s all acapella. There are no empty seats, we’re in the round and we’re singing in four-part harmony loudly. It’s so beautiful because you can’t sing the harmony by yourself. We’re a congregation of producers and not consumers – we make our own music.
You seem to break the rules and conventions of what you might expect a church to look like. What’s the future of the American Church?
I honestly don’t know what to think because I see mainline Protestantism in America declining fairly rapidly, and yet [in our local church] we have to almost send people away – we have too many people coming.
I think that when people say ‘the Church is dying’ they don’t really understand what the term ‘the Church’ means in the first place. The institution will probably go by the wayside, as we’ve seen; it’s had its heyday.
Those institutions became so big, with all of their colleges and summer camps and denominational headquarters. When we had all of that, we were ‘successful’, but that is a version of success that’s based on a set of values the Church never had any business buying into in the first place. So to say that was when we were ‘successful’ is to judge the Church by a set of values that do not come from the gospel. So, to say that is dying and we’re not as successful; I don’t know how sad that actually is.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the author of Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (Canterbury Press, 2015) and will be speaking at Greenbelt 26th–29th August Follow Nadia @sarcasticluther