The Love-Hate Memoir of One Churchgoing Gal

A Review of Rachel Held-Evans’ Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church

searching-for-sunday

“Searching for Sunday.” Rachel Held-Evans. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 2015. 269 pp.

In her latest book Searching for Sunday, popular blogger and author Rachel Held-Evans is at her best: as a mouthpiece for evangelical Christians wearied by the culture wars of their forebears, Held-Evans has written a book that reintroduces the relevance of the church and the Christian faith for a growing segment of Americans that either self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or have left the church because of their disillusionment there, or both. Indeed, Searching for Sunday answers the need for a winning, instructive articulation of “church” and why church, warts and all, still matters—not just to Held-Evans, in her own personal meandering of loving, leaving and finding the church, but to our postmodern generation, at a time when faith itself (or at least traditional expressions of it) may be in crisis.

Held-Evans handles this task deftly. She reacquaints her readers with seven sacraments that historically have defined the church, by including a section on each of these with short, corresponding chapters that translate that sacrament’s appeal for our time:

  • The church tells us we are beloved (baptism)
  • The church tells us we are broken (confession)
  • The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders)
  • The church feeds us (communion)
  • The church welcomes us (confirmation)
  • The church anoints us (anointing of the sick)
  • The church unites us (marriage)

The fact that Held-Evans embraces all seven sacraments of the Catholic Church is an indication of just how far she has traveled from her own church upbringing. Like mine, her largely evangelical, non-denominational origins exuded very little in the way of sacramentalism—(and also involved weekly AWANA classes and a regular dose of overtly political conservatism). So it is striking that Held-Evans attributes her return to church (and in particular, to the Episcopal Church) to the sacraments.

In Held-Evans’ words:

When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear and see God in the stuff of everyday life again. They got God out of my head and into my hands. They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.

Held-Evans’ (and others’) very real need for the church and for a “true” version of the Christian faith—as opposed to merely a “hip” one—is as on display in this book as Held-Evans’ aversions to certain expressions of Christianity, especially those that would discriminate against gays and women. In this sense, the book may be too much of a lightening rod for some potential readers (but no more so than Held-Evans’ blog already is).

True to form, Held-Evans is smart, well-informed and refreshingly honest in her engagement of the Bible (and in particular, passages that have often been used to prop up particular agendas in the church). She refuses to dodge Scripture’s unanswered questions. Take, for example, the story of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel. The religious leaders have brought the woman to Jesus in order to see whether Jesus will condemn her in accordance with the law. After Jesus sends the religious leaders away, he turns to the woman, absolving her from condemnation with the perplexing command, “Go and sin no more.”

Here Held-Evans voices my own questions about this passage and its contemporary conscription by those who believe the church needs to take a more hard-line stance towards sin (or at least towards certain perceived sins). Held-Evans writes, “To this I am always tempted to respond: So how that’s working out for you? The sinning no more thing? Because it’s not going so well for me.”

I want to cheer when I read these sorts of truthful confessions throughout the book—not just because they are also my own, but because they poke holes in contemporary manifestations of the early church heresy known as Pelagianism (which espoused the belief that human beings could attain moral perfection in this life).

Elsewhere Held-Evans makes bold, thought-provoking declarations about the very nature of God. Within the context of a discussion about the sacrament of marriage, for instance, she reckons that “what each of us longs for the most is to be both fully known and fully loved,” and that “God, too, wants to be fully known and fully loved.” This connecting of the dots, between our erotic longing and that of a God who desires full, naked intimacy with us, is one that I had not come across in quite the same way until Held-Evans’ daring articulation of it.

This book is not without its flaws. At times the organization of chapters within sections seems forced and unclear, so that I am left wondering why, for example, in a section on healing and the anointing of the sick, I am reading about the church growth antics of one mega church pastor and ways to interpret the church’s present-day decline.

Such small gripes notwithstanding, Searching for Sunday is worth a read—not just by those who have yet to apprehend their need for church, or who struggle to understand the essence and relevance of the institution, but by those looking to fall in love all over again.

Kristina Robb-Dover is an Atlanta-based writer, author and minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)., having served in various ministry settings. Her latest book project, The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addictions (InterVarsity Press) will hit bookstores this winter. She is also the author of Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls (Wipf & Stock, 2013), and her articles have appeared in a number of publications, including Touchstone, The Christian Century and The Washington Post. You can find her regularly musing at the Beliefnet blog, “Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.”

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EXCLUSIVE: Three Episcopal seminaries offer new programs to address grim financial realities facing seminarians

The General Theological Seminary (GTS), in New York City, is responding to its students’ increasing financial stress by actively raising more scholarship funds and by developing a Financial Literacy certificate program, which will provide students with skills to manage both their own finances and the finances of their parishes.

Lowrey also indicated that GTS plans to increase its distance-learning program, which will help reduce student debt. While it’s still in the very early planning stages, Lowrey hopes that through this program, students will be able to attend seminary full time for two years and then spend their third year working in a parish, gaining practical experience and attending courses online to complete their degree. Lowrey believes the program could save students up to a third of the costs they are paying today.

“If a student sells his house to come here, that’s when I start to worry,” said the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer, director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Berkeley, Calif.

Singer said CDSP has noted an increase in commuter students as seminarians look to cut costs, and that the board has recently voted to begin a partnership program with Episcopal bishops across the country. This program will offer a limited number of full-tuition scholarships to qualified students who are nominated by their bishops and who have demonstrated outstanding community leadership. In return, the seminary will be asking the bishops to pledge to hire these graduates whom they nominated for a period of two years after successful completion of their studies at CDSP at the standard clerical pay scale. “It’s expected the new program will be ready for fall 2013,” Singer said.

Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), Cambridge, Mass., recognizing the financially infeasibility for some of its students of leaving their jobs and moving across the country to attend seminary full time for three years, is continuing to enhance its hybrid learning option. This program allows students to attend classes online in the fall and spring, then meet in person for two intensive 10-day terms in January and June. According to the Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Ragsdale, president and dean of EDS, this hybrid option is garnering increasing interest from bishops who realize the need to ease the debt burden on seminarians whose job prospects may be limited in their dioceses.

EDS is also launching a pilot program this fall for seminarians working in select underserved communities in exchange for repayment of their student debt during their service. Ragsdale explained EDS will be choosing the dioceses to work with during the pilot program over the summer. The first sponsored student participants are expected to begin their studies in fall 2012 and complete the Masters of Divinity program in May 2015.

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)

Increasing financial stress hits clergy as well as students

It’s not always smooth financial sailing after graduation – especially for priests who are trying to provide for their families.

Before landing positions as full-time hospital chaplains in Connecticut, the Rev. Eric Jeuland and his wife, the Rev. Jane Jeuland, worked multiple jobs to piece together a ministry and an income.

At one point, Eric worked in two different parishes as a youth minster and as a campus minister 70 miles away, and Jane founded an urban after-school teen program while working as a parish assistant.

But long commutes and shrinking church budgets made it difficult for them to plan for a family and once their son arrived, the need was urgent to gain financial stability for their young family.

Because of their love of chaplaincy and their financial need, they both decided to find employment outside the church.  “We feel so blessed to be working as chaplains,” said Jane. “God really opened doors for us to carry our call to ministry in hospital settings.”

Landing full-time posts in hospitals was well timed, the couple said. “It became very difficult to piece together part-time parish work that, for budget reasons, in this down economy and shrinking church, was always too expensive for our employers to guarantee,” Eric added.

The Revs. Jeuland aren’t alone in the challenges of piecing together work while managing family financial responsibilities.

The Rev. Stephen Harding, who works as a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department and is a hospital and hospice chaplain, is afraid he may have to leave the church to find secular employment if he can’t afford to educate his 5-year-old son and save enough for retirement.

Harding, who would like to land a full-time parish job, expects more priests will need to cobble together part-time work in order to provide for their families if a full-time job isn’t available. Until the church figures out a sustainable compensation model, he fears more clergy will find themselves under similar financial stress.

“I believe the parish paradigm, overall, is a failing business model, and that the church hasn’t figured out the new model yet,” said Harding.

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)