It's easy to understand why the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber has always received so much attention from the mainstream news media.
Many journalists start with The Look, referring to her many tattoos, edgy hair and love of weight-lifting. Then there is the message -- a jolting mix of traditional religious language, lingering traces of her work in stand-up comedy, candor about her complicated personal life and a set of moral and political views that place her solidly on the religious left. And the aging world of old-line Protestantism is not full of pastors, male or female, who built growing urban congregations that appealed to the young.
The bottom line: Bolz-Weber is a media superstar.
So it was totally logical for Religion News Service to produce a long feature about her final service as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church that she started a decade ago in Denver. Here's a crucial passage:
Bolz-Weber said she had decided to step away only recently and still can’t entirely explain what made her feel like it was the right time. She reached a point, she said, where “the church still loves me, but I don’t think the church still needs me.” ...
But there were signs, too, that she had done all she could do at HFASS. “I didn’t come to this job with everything, but it felt like I was equipped with the ability to welcome thousands of people through the doors,” she said. “I was at a retreat recently where there were 30 people I didn’t recognize, and I just had this feeling like, ‘I can’t welcome any more people.’”
Bolz-Weber’s signature talent is welcoming people who think the church wouldn’t welcome them. The eight people who showed up in her living room for a Sunday evening service in 2008 were mostly LGBT people, those with religious baggage, addicts and others who don’t fit at many Sunday services but want to experience God’s grace.
After a decade, the church has roughly 500 members. That's a rather average-sized church in megachurch friendly Denver, but that is a very large church in the context of liberal Protestantism.
Needless to say, Bolz-Weber has critics as well as fans. I appreciated this detail. After the final service:
... folding tables were brought out for a classic Lutheran potluck consisting mainly of casseroles. A woman sang a song mocking the criticism Bolz-Weber occasionally receives for being too progressive and overly tattooed. The congregation’s parting gift was a stole with images of Wonder Woman on it.
I would have been interested in reading some of the lyrics from that tribute song. That would have been an easy way to transition into some quotes from those who have questions about Bolz-Weber and her church.
However, this RNS feature -- which was not marked "analysis" or "commentary" -- is one long love song to the pastor, her church and her work. Anyone looking for dissenting voices or input from critics of her message (and her plans to fly solo as a roving public theologian) will need to look elsewhere.
This brings us to an interesting detail in the piece linked to her successor as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints -- the Rev. Reagan Hunter, an Episcopal priest. (The Episcopal Church and the ELCA have a concordat of full Communion, at the level of sacraments and ministry.)
This is complex stuff, in the context of a story that reads like a public-relations piece:
Humber takes comfort in the idea that HFASS doesn’t look for perfection. “Sure, we’re going to screw some things up,” he said. “But when we screw things up and then still come back the next week, that’s where the grace happens. That’s when church gets real and the dead are raised.” ...
Humber, who came to HFASS from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, is well-equipped to carry on the church’s alternative vibe. His partner is a hair stylist who moonlights as the drag queen Fruitbomb, and Humber is open about his struggles with opiates and alcohol.
“People in recovery know what it’s like to be at the end of your ability, and that’s powerful,” said Asher O’Callaghan, a longtime HFASS member who is the first transgender person to be ordained in the ELCA.
To be blunt: The "Fruitbomb" reference is quite brave, in a story of this kind. Does the pastor's "partner" have a name? Are they married, which would be an option in both the ELCA and the Episcopal Church?
At the same time, it's hard to believe that -- even in the LGBTQ-friendly ELCA -- this detail in the new pastor's life has failed to raise some eyebrows, in the denomination as a whole.
Also, why isn't O’Callaghan referred to as "the Rev." or, in Lutheran language, "Pastor"? It is also interesting to have an ordained pastor who is a member of a congregation, but not part of its ministry team. Does O’Callaghan have an official role there or with some other institution? Has the ELCA struggled to find the right ministry fit for O’Callaghan?
Lots of questions. Many readers, I think, would have appreciated material -- positive and negative -- looking for some answers. You think?