Guest Blog: Becoming an Interfaith Pastor
Guest blogger Rev. Elizabeth Hagan provides reflections on her journey as a pastor. You can find Elizabeth online at www.elizabethhagan.com
The first time I heard the phrase “God is too big for any one religion” I was in seminary in North Carolina. This statement was found on a bumper sticker on a dear friend’s car. I was intrigued but confused.
Growing up with a “Jesus is the only way to God” upbringing in Tennessee, I had no idea about what to think of my soon-to-be clergy friend’s bold declaration on her car.
Truthfully, I worried for her safety in the land of Southern Baptists. Didn’t see she know her car drove on the roads of the Bible Belt?
After seminary I moved to the Washington DC area—a place the world came to visit on a weekly basis and the movers and shakers of our country gathered blocks from my doorstep. My world became larger than I could wrap my brain around fast. In my free time, I dated Kevin, a growing to be progressive Baptist like me, who lived in a shared house in the city with two other guys. I liked them a lot. They were funny, smart and accepting of my growing presence in their home. They just so happened to be Hindu and Baha’i.
Everything I’d learned about my faith growing up (and in seminary too) taught me to think that conversion on their behalf of a non “Jesus is Lord” person was something I should add to my prayer list.
Yet, as I got to know my new friends, I just couldn’t. I began to admire the discipline of their religious practices—their prayers, their meeting groups, and their sacred ceremonies. I came to know them as kind and moral individuals with much to teach me about God from their own spiritual journeys. I also found that they loved talking about the Bible and Jesus with me (as they knew much more about Christianity than many of my Christians friends did). One of them even helped to serve communion at my wedding to Kevin several years later. (Does that make me a heretic?)
I began to believe that God loved the prayers of my non-Christian friends as much as God did mine.
In the first two years post seminary, I served as an associate pastor at multi-staffed congregation. As ground under me began to shift because of my new friends and the new books I was reading like The Koran, I feared I might lose my job.
I was afraid that if I opened my mouth to say, “I believe it’s ok that my friend is a practicing Hindu and not a Christian” my qualification for the pastorate might be questioned.
Because wasn’t it my job, to grow the church at all costs, especially those who were “lost?”
If you were asking me now, why I exited this job after only 2 years, I’d have to tell you this was a deciding factor to take a new position: my church and I had difference of opinion of who the lost actually were.
I knew from that point on, I could not lead a church without being up front about how I felt about faith outside of Christianity.
A couple summers later, well settled into my more inclusive minded church, I signed up for continuing education course in the practice of spiritual direction. While there were countless spiritual direction programs I could have learned much from in my own Christian tradition (much closer to home too), something stuck out to me about Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. I knew I could be uncomfortable, stretched theologically and come to moments of complete disagreement with my classmates. What might the Spirit be leading me into next?
From this training, again I saw that my own spiritual practices lacked discipline. Spiritual disciplines are truly the path to God, no matter the labels we put on them.
I realized that I’d been so busy being a professional Christian that I forgot that God loved me no matter what I did or didn’t do. We need all need to ask each other more questions like: “Who is God to you?”
I felt the Holy as we worshiped in the liturgy of my Jewish and Native American classmates and simply spiritual folks who loved the trees. I need not be so quick to judge. God was indeed bigger than I thought.
Today, as I’m still in the Washington, D.C. area pastoring, I’m often teaching on how to find God in other religious paths. I recently preached a sermon about how being open minded doesn’t make us less Christian, it actually strengthens what the path is for us. It’s a principal as essential to my ministry as teaching on incarnation, trinity or resurrection in the life to come are to high holy Christian celebration days. And I’m so glad for the kinship with my Jewish and Muslim colleagues in the city.
God is always in the business of surprising me. I’m always learning.
Guest Blogger: Rev. Elizabeth Hagan is the Pastor of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility and Seeing a Different World - Partners in Prayer Advent Devotional. Elizabeth blogs at www.elizabethhagan.com