c. 2006 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
Barbara Brown Taylor has been an Episcopal priest, a teacher, columnist, author and — according to Baylor University — one of the best preachers in the English-speaking world.
Her new book, Leaving Church (HarperSanFrancisco), describes her experience of burning out as the priest of a parish she had wanted very much to serve and then leaving not only the pastoral ministry but also many of her former beliefs.
“I wanted to be as close as I could to the Really Real,” she said in an interview with Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “And I’ll capitalize both of those R’s, because God is a word that means different things to different people, but we might agree it’s what is most real.”
At her parish, Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Ga., Taylor was a workaholic.
“Part of what happened was the church and I succeeded. … The church grew and I gained a reputation for preaching, and people came and it was a wonderful community,” she said.
“But we had a building that seated 82 people and with a congregation approaching 400, we were up to four services on Sunday and everyone was tired,” she said. “And in my wish to do well for that congregation, I wasn’t doing particularly well for myself or my friends or my family.
“And I even found that the work ‘for’ God was taking me away ‘from’ God,” she added. “There was not time anymore to be quiet or still or pray.”
At the same time, she said her understandings were changing — of what faith is and of what she believed.
“Beliefs have become unimportant to me,” she said. “Faith as radical trust became even more important to me during this time. Because so many of my certainties about who I was and what I was to be doing fell away, that faith was really what I had left.”
Added to the burden was the strain of what she called the “toxic effect” on a priest of being seen as the holiest person in a room.
“I did set out to be holy and to be a perfect exemplar, and to fulfill all of my vows, baptismal and ordained. … And we speak of ordination in the Episcopal Church as being set apart. It’s part of the job. But I didn’t want to be set apart anymore.”
When a call came from nearby Piedmont College asking her if she might like to teach world religions, Taylor quickly said yes and resigned from Grace-Calvary. She said she loves her new ministry.
“The teaching was and is wonderful,” she recently told an audience at Washington’s National Cathedral. “I get to work with 19- and 20-year-olds who are not only my emotional peers but also a group I saw very little of in church. I get to ask the questions instead of providing the answers, which is a great freedom and relief.”
Taylor acknowledged that doubt played a role in her leaving the parish ministry.
“Here’s the way I presently live with doubt,” she said. “Doubt often brings me to poke at what I believe. And when it topples, I realize that was an idol. And so doubt and disillusionment have been the divine gifts that have led me deeper into who God is.”
Central to her new understanding, she said, is that the call to serve God is also the call to be fully human — “to the best of my ability, resisting being a fake. Resisting the fake answer, the false front, the superficial conversation in favor of something more deeply human, more deeply connected to what really matters about being alive, whether it sounds religious or spiritual or correct or not,” she said.
And, she added, “It means worrying less about being perfect and being concerned more with being authentic or real with other people.”
Taylor said much of the religion she was schooled in was about putting herself aside in order to become something holier and closer to God. “In other words, to draw nearer to the Really Real, I needed to be less me,” she said. “Perhaps it was a midlife revelation or just wearing out on that that led me to a different understanding that my humanity was God’s chief gift to me,” Taylor said. “And that if I was going to find the Really Real, it was going to be with that and separating myself from that.
“It meant that the holiest thing I could be was the flawed human being God had made me to be.”
At the same time, Taylor insists she remains a Christian.
“For a long time I listened to other people to decide whether I was still Christian or not,” she said. “And about, I don’t know, two years ago, the great relief was I decided I got to say whether I was Christian or not. And so I’ve relaxed enormously since then.
“I say I am. I’m a follower of the Christ path. I’m a follower. I’m a follower.”
Bob Abernethy is the executive editor and host of PBS’ program, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. A version of this story first appeared on that program.