Gretta Vosper and pastors who no longer believe like we do

"Still Does Her Job" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Still Does Her Job” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

Yes, this meme or cartoon is based on the Kim Davis story. So I thought I’d enter my dog into this fight. But I’m not talking about Davis.

I’m talking about the Reverend Gretta Vosper, a United Church of Canada minister who is under review for whether she is fit for ministry or not. She is vocal about the atheism to which she has arrived, and has written two books outlining her ideas, one on prayer and one on belief.

I want to share some personal reflections around why I’m so fascinated with this story.

I left the ministry and the membership of the church in 2010, all at once. I say “left… the membership” because I’ll still visit churches occasionally. The church and I divorced amicably because we came to the agreement that we were no longer compatible theologically. I had developed beyond the comfort level the church could or would sustain. I still feel sad about it because I loved that church, that community. I’m not sad for it or for me, but for us. We had a good thing.

You can read my story in more detail, with illustrations, in my just released book Questions Are The Answer: nakedpastor and the search for understanding.

I would like to tell you about two incidents in my life to do with being a pastor.

The first is in 1997 I went to our annual Vineyard Leaders conference and heard the founder of the Vineyard Movement, John Wimber, give a message for his very last time. It was the only time I’d ever heard him speak. Many people exclaimed to me that he wasn’t at his best because he was so ill and that I should have heard him in his prime. But I was blown away. It was during this talk that he claimed the pastor’s job was to help people progress spiritually from one stage to the next. As soon as he said that I knew this is what I wanted to keep doing. In one sentence he clarified what I sensed was my calling that I had wrestled with for so many long years.

The next story has to do with when I took a small break from the ministry as a Vineyard pastor. Even though I had clarity how to do the vocation of ministry, I still wrestled with the actualities of it because I was constantly in theological turmoil. One day in 2004 I think, at another conference, I met with the national director of the Vineyard and was sharing my struggle. He said, “David, what do you want people to say at your funeral?” I immediately knew and answered, “David was a great pastor!”

So, for me, a good pastor is someone who assists people in their own spiritual evolution. Their own beliefs do not, I suggest, come into play. In fact, I would claim that the beliefs of a pastor can actually interfere with the spiritual development of those they are trying to assist if they allow these beliefs to play a role in the process. A good pastor, or spiritual director, or therapist… whatever you want to call it… helps the other grow at their own pace on their own path in their own way regardless of their own beliefs. A good pastor helps the other person be the best person that person can be in that person’s own world, not the pastor’s.

This is better than the more popular and prevalent way of trying to make people conform to the pastor’s beliefs.

That’s how I tried to pastor. I allowed everyone to be wherever they were without judgment. I trust that when people realize they can be themselves and are provided space to do that, they will become themselves. I saw it over and over again. As a result, we witnessed and experienced a rich tapestry of diversity among us… anywhere from believer to atheist… all gathered around the value of love and mutual respect. And people grew! They progressed! They evolved! It was amazing when it was working.

My time as a pastor of a local church came to an end because it is a scarier ride to strap yourself into than the traditional way of gathering around common belief. It is at times chaotic, unorganized, and confusing. But it produces a far more profound authenticity, beauty, energy, and action. I would have stayed. But they would not.

I think this is the kind of pastor Vosper is. This is a rare opportunity for a pastor who believes, or not, as she does who matches a congregation who want to keep her as their pastor. They are compatible and I hope that is honored and even becomes a model for other congregations.

Of course, some people will continue to point to her vows and insist that she’s no longer fit because she’s breaking them. They would say she lacks integrity and should do the honorable thing and resign. But this is my call out to the UCC to reconsider how it proceeds. Why? Because this phenomenon is increasing. I personally know a lot of pastors who are struggling with their beliefs or have even rejected them. But they love what they do. They love serving people in their own spiritual evolutions and would love to continue to do so. But they are living secret lives, hidden behind their professional believer masks and gripped by the fear of exposure and the drastic ramifications this implies, including unemployment.

I know! I’ve been there. And I listen to my pastor friends who are still there.

It would be beneficial to provide at least some communities, either within our denominations or independently, where what the pastor believes is not primary, as long as they are committed to the unique and individual spiritual health of their members. As I’ve already said, I in fact think the best pastors are those that lay their beliefs aside for the sake of their love for their members. This arrangement would be paradise for so many pastors as well as so many members.

Yes, here I go again, talking about something I’m passionate about: I founded and facilitate an online community, The Lasting Supper. We attempt to provide exactly that kind of community for you. Yes, you. I’m often asked what I believe. To be honest, I’m reluctant to answer that question for at least a couple reasons: I don’t want my beliefs to have too much of an influence on your decisions about yours, and I trust that when you are given the space you will grow as you ought. So I don’t want that space to be framed by my beliefs. Otherwise, your freedom is limited. And your freedom shouldn’t be limited.

So I warmly invite you to The Lasting Supper. Pull up a chair and join us at the table.

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7 Responses

  1. Bernardo says:

    Dave now Gretta. Good to know and supports conclusions of others who take the time to peruse outside the box of the OT/NT.

  2. Richard Bott says:

    Part of my job, as a minister in The United Church of Canada is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ (and Jesus’ Good News, at least as expressed in scripture, has something to do with God). Part of my job, as a minister in The United Church of Canada is to celebrate the sacraments of baptism (in the name of the Trinity, in fact, we still have to use the traditional trinitarian formula, even if we wish we could do otherwise) and communion.

    Those things were clearly written into the vows we said at ordination, and are repeated in the services of covenant that take place whenever we am settled with a new congregation in The United Church of Canada.

    “Doesn’t believe in God.”

    Since a belief in God – in some way, shape or form – theist/non-theist/traditional/process/yaddayaddayadda – is part of doing the job, is someone who, as you put it in the meme “Doesn’t believe in God” really able to do the job?

    The Rev. Gretta Vosper, like all of us who have been ordained, commissioned, recognized, admitted or re-admitted (yeah, we have a wild number of streams of ministry leadership) in The United Church of Canada are under the discipline of the wider decision making bodies of the denomination. In this review, the decision making bodies are simply taking their oversight responsibilities on. They’ll be the ones who make decision about whether or not one who holds her beliefs is capable of “doing their job.”

    Reviews are agonizing processes, for the person under review, and for the people doing the review. I’m glad I’m not one of the people who has do that work in this case. And – since I do believe in God (in a rather process kind of way) – I’ll keep praying for wisdom, discernment, and hope, for both her and for the review team.

    Because they’re all going to need it.

  3. Hamsahandgirl says:

    I think this also highlights the FACT that people’s faith does change. The church has done a good job if ignoring this, and studies have shown that atheists do in fact go to church. Now that a pastor’s faith has changed, the church cannot ignore it.

  4. Stephen says:

    I’m a bit late to the party here, but I felt I had to comment on this sentence in the article: “It was during this talk that he claimed the pastor’s job was to help people progress spiritually from one stage to the next.”
    This astounds me – not because it’s not typical of what Wimber would have said (it most definitely is) but because I have never seen or experienced a Vineyard pastor in this country (I’m in the UK) act in that manner.
    I don’t think we got that memo on this side of the pond.
    Instead, I have seen leaders who thought that it was their primary objective to build the empire – sorry, church – and toss out any bricks they found that didn’t fit.
    On this criterion, the Vineyard churches I have experienced didn’t actually have any pastors.

  5. That’s sad and too bad Stephen. I think those kinds of pastors are rare anywhere.