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The life of a free-range preacher: An interview with Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of the most

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of the 10 most influential living preachers according to a recent poll – Image courtesy of HarperOne

Barbara Brown Taylor makes a living out of words–in the past, as an Episcopal priest and currently as a writer and professor at Piedmont College. Though I only recently discovered her work, I quickly fell in love with her and have since read every one of her books including The New York Times bestselling An Altar in the World and her collected sermons in Bread of Angels, Gospel Medicine, and God in Pain.

Her breathtaking turns of phrase and depth of thought create a feast that must be savored slowly. Sometimes I have to read a passage two or three times before I feel like I’ve fully experienced it. Though I don’t agree with every point she makes in every word she pens, I’ve found some of Taylor’s insights into the Christian life to be on par with greats like–brace yourself–Lewis and Tozer.

I’m not the only one who thinks highly of her. Taylor was ranked as one of the 12 “most effective preachers” in the English-speaking world according to a worldwide survey. She was also listed as one of the top 10 most influential living preachers in a poll conducted by LifeWay Research of the Southern Baptist Convention. In this interview, Taylor talks about the Church, compassion fatigue, and her spiritual memoir, Leaving Church, in which she describes spending 15 years in Episcopal parish ministry before walking away from the pulpit.

JM: In the introduction to Leaving Church, you compare your ordination with a marriage. What feelings did you have when you walked away from it?

BBT: I did not walk away from ordination—I am still a priest in good standing in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. But I did decide to leave parish ministry after 15 years, which meant “moving out of the house” I had shared with a congregation for the last five of those years. The feelings were exactly what you would expect at first: grief, sadness, guilt—and anger, for all kinds of sensible and invented reasons. But after a few months most of those feelings gave way to the excitement of beginning a different kind of ministry in a new setting that opened up all kinds of doors for me. Now I feel lasting gratitude for the years I spent in parish ministry, matched only by my gratitude for the job I have now. I love being a teacher, all the way down to my bones.

JM: You occasionally mention your husband in your writings and sermons. What role did he play during your transition?

BBT: Ed should be cloned so that every clergywoman who wants a supportive spouse can have one. When I first left parish ministry he was as stunned as I was by the changes in our lives. We gave up our places at the center of a church community. Our finances took a dip with the loss of clergy benefits. But he and I were both happy to have free weekends for the first time in our married life, and to go to church together. Ed is a very steady guy, and he remained a strong center for me during an unsteady time.

JM: You talk about having been a minister in the center of a city of never-ending human need. I imagine a lot of people who work in the church or non-profit worlds can relate. How did “compassion fatigue” take its toll on you personally?

Image courtesy of HarperOne

Image courtesy of HarperOne

BBT: As I wrote in the book, the most worrisome thing was that I learned to fake compassion when I was too tired to produce the real thing, which eventually made me a stranger to my own heart. I remember one Christmas Eve when a member of the church fell ill and was taken to the hospital after the midnight service (the third one that night). Of course I went to be with her, which meant not being with my family, and spending Christmas day in a fog. I am under no illusion that clergy have it any harder than anyone else. Parents, doctors, firefighters, EMTs and plenty of other people all serve at the center of never-ending human need, but it does take a toll. If you’re not careful, you begin to resent the very people you set out to serve.

JM: How do you deal with it now?

BBT: I do not have compassion fatigue anymore. College students are a pretty independent lot. I remember reading somewhere that the maximum number of people any of us can care for very well is 20, and that’s about where I am now.

JM: You’re a teacher now; in what ways are the two professions similar?

BBT: I guess the most obvious similarity is that preachers and teachers both get to talk while other people listen. Parish ministry would be so different if clergy gave grades!

But at a deeper level I note at least two major similarities. The first is the creation of community, which is as important in the classroom as it is in the church. Every semester I look at all the different people who have signed up for my class with all their different expectations and I think, “Now how are we all going to get along?” They did not choose one another any more than the members of a church choose one another, so my job includes helping them get to know each other better, identify common goals, learn the difference between dialog and debate, and respect one another’s humanity. The second similarity is the goal of awakening. In the church and in the classroom, all of my efforts are directed toward helping people see more than they did before, wonder more about the world around them, ask better questions.

That’s how the two professions seem very different to me. As a parish minister I often felt like “the answer person,” but as a college teacher I am happy to be “the question person.”

JM: Do you continue to be part of a faith community even though you’re not leading one?

BBT: I am in church a couple or three Sundays a month, but never the same one. This weekend I’m preaching at a Presbyterian church in Manhattan. Next month I’ll preach in a prison and a college chapel. After years and years of being a “stay-at-home minister” I’m more of a “free-range preacher” now. The community that sustains me is made up of people from several different faiths who, like me, are engaged in pushing the boundaries of our traditions. The Episcopal Church remains my church home. It means a great deal to me that our book is the Book of Common Prayer. It’s our common prayer, not our common beliefs, that hold us together.

JM: What do you see in the Church today that gives you hope?

BBT: I am afraid that I don’t know anything about “the Church,” since that phrase suggests a uniformity that I have never found among the churches I have known on Earth. I do see things that give me hope as I travel around, most of them having to do with churches that are finding life in the midst of death. Sometimes that means selling an expensive building and finding greater purpose in a smaller, rented space. Sometimes it means being unable to call a full-time pastor and finding out how much better a bi-vocational pastor can speak to the challenge of bridging Sunday and Monday. Sometimes it means sticking with a changing neighborhood and finding whole new layers to the gospel as you seek and serve Christ in people who do not look a bit like you. Every church has its own personality—its own gifts, its own fears, its own angels. What gives me hope is watching the ones who trust the gospel enough to walk right into what they fear the most, expecting to find new life.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Barbara Brown Taylor has a way with words, I’ll give her that, but I don’t think she has a way with faith, at least not one that resembles orthodox Christianity.

    In her book Leaving Church, which does have some wonderful prose, she states early on that she could have as easily developed her faith by way of non-Christian religious practices as through the Episcopal Church, and ended up with just as good a relationship with whoever the Supreme Being happens to be. A lot of people share her opinion, but it’s syncretistic nonetheless. The book then follows her path to leaving parich work and pursuing her varied paths of belief and practice.

    Orthodoxy and orthopraxy meant something to Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and even Lewis and Tozer whom you mention. These are missing from Leaving Church, though. And based on that book and her answer to your last question in this interview, it’s hard to discern what her ecclessiology really is anyway.


  • Tim,

    I obviously don’t resonate with those pieces of her theology. Her most influential stuff in my life comes from her earlier sermons. Those are wonderful.


  • I thought that might be what you alluded to when saying you don’t agree with every point she makes. Which of her early books would you recommend for a start?

  • I’m always amused at claims of “orthodox Christianity.” Today’s church falls so short of that moniker in more ways than can be counted. Most of the time when I hear that phrase used my thoughts immediately turn to a rigidity of thinking that is based on a male-dominated church and society where everything is laid out for worshipers so that someone else tells them what is right and what is wrong, generally meaning sinful. That is probably where I think “the church” falls the farthest from the teachings of Jesus. Right relationships was the “stuff” of Jesus ministry on earth. The right relationships of day to day living with people who differ from us and some of whom we really do not like very much. Yet Jesus allowed no exceptions to loving of neighbor.

    For me this is the crux of Barbara Taylor’s preaching and teaching. Having heard her preach from the pulpit of my own parish for many years, I was always struck by her way to link the ordinary and mundane aspects of just living our lives to the holy and divine. We do not live in some cloistered compound where we can all pray and be like each other. We live in a real world with very real problems and issues that do not have easy solutions. Barbara was always clear on that and that the role of priest and church was NOT to provide all the answers but to provide resources for each of us to find the answers and build that personal relationship with our Creator that could sustain us through the worst life could throw at us. For me that is true orthodox Christianity.

    I’ve known Barbara Taylor since we were undergraduates at the same college, although she didn’t know me per se until she came to my parish home as a deacon. We’ve butted heads over things at times but much of that was differences in world view, maturity, comfort in our own skins, type stuff. She brings the Gospel to us in a way that isn’t “I’m going to tell you how to get to heaven.” It is a way that tells us how to live out the ministry God has given us hear on this plane of existence meeting those whom God puts in our path rather than ignoring everyone as we strive to be “good enough” to get to heaven. Jesus taught that in very clear terms and we have found every excuse possible to find exceptions to a simple ministry of loving God and loving neighbor.

    I’m grateful to know Barbara and having had the “up close” experience of her preaching and teaching.

  • As a parish priest without a specific spirituality as religious priests have, I have taken the lectionary as the foundation of my spirituality. The daily readings and centering prayer seem to be the grounding I need to not feel fatigued, even though I can get very tired.

  • Ditto on the practice of using the lectionary. A number of years ago I took on daily Morning Prayer as a discipline during Lent. It stuck and I am out of sorts when I can’t get to that part of my day. I was also practical and bought the modern version of the Daily Office that has all readings included by year and in the correct order…..makes life easier.

  • I am firmly in the mold of Taylor and commenter Bruce Garner. Orthodoxy’s purpose is control, has been from the Council of Nicene and before. Those early guys felt the need to write a precise definition of Christianity that fit their personal and political needs.

    I am an ordained pastor in the ELCA. My synodical bishop, David Zellmer, removed me from the roster because I became too ill to work. That reflects on him, not the ELCA. He is generally held in low regard. That is not why I am not orthodox.

    I never have been orthodox and do not feel a need to be so. I don’t think that I can define God, put her in a small, rigid box. I don’t think others need to either, though if they choose to that is their business, as long as they do not insist that they possess the one and only Correct Belief.

    As I read the Gospels, I find that the only times Jesus shows any concern with the Law is when the local religious leaders ask him about it. The focus of their questions is using the Law as a weapon.

    Interesting. Worth pondering. Those of you strongly favoring clear standards for orthodoxy, I’m very curious about what it is in you that craves it. I hope you will enlighten me.

  • I have sometimes compared this rigid form of orthodoxy to Christians behaving like they are Jews living under the Law of Moses instead of behaving like a people who have been redeemed by God through Jesus Christ. The latter should bring great joy in living within the spirit. The former seems to just generate an aura of negativity. It is of course easier to live your life if someone gives you a list of do’s and don’t’s but that doesn’t seem to honor the wonder God has created in humankind. If God wanted puppets, I suspect God would have created us with less of an ability to think and reason. Worshiping God with the mind is more difficult that following a list. Yet it also seems to reflect the ongoing relationship of God to the peoples of God allowing for the Holy Spirit to work Her mischief on occasion and sometimes show us God’s sense of humor.

  • Liberals talking about control is really funny. Liberals are all about control. For example, take woman’s ordination. A conscience clause was part of the ushering in of this innovation, but the clause was removed in time and enforcement teams were sent into offending dioceses.

    Or how about this: “New bishops in the Episcopal Church should be vetted for their political orthodoxy, a paper released by the House of Bishops’ Standing Committee on Pastoral Development has proposed. The call for conformity came in a 29 April 2013 letter released under the signature of the Rt. Rev. James Waggoner, Jr., Bishop of Spokane and was sent to the church’s bishops and standing committees.” (Anglican Ink)

    Liberals love diversity when it is liberal diversity. Otherwise, all kinds of control tactics are used. Thinking and reasoning? I haven’t seen too much evidence of these from liberal quarters in pecusa. Another example: To Set Our Hope on Christ. Even liberals panned that work. So, liberals and free thought or rational thought is generally laughable.

  • I have to differ with that viewpoint. Allowing an “out” for violating canon law was a generous act on the part of so-called liberals to continue to make room in the church for so-called conservatives. (I consider myself neither liberal nor conservative, but rather moderate influenced by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)

    My experience and my practice has always been to “make room at the table” for everyone, regardless of whether or not we agreed about various things. My unfortunate experience is that such has not been reciprocated. Often I have been called names and insulted for my viewpoint even when I have made it clear that I accept and respect different viewpoints. That is hardly an attempt to control. Rather it is giving up a degree of control to accommodate different opinions.

    The Episcopal Church has a history of taking a wide view of issues and trying to engage and include as broad a spectrum of thought as possible. Sadly, that has not always worked. It’s difficult to include and foster participation of those who even refuse to come to the table much less sit down at it.

    Remember that Barbara Taylor was ordained not terribly long after the 1979 General Convention authorized the ordination of women to all orders of ministry. Some did not like the fact that there was a woman priest behind the altar or in the pulpit. While I respect those feelings, the canon laws that govern our church made it clear that gender could not be a bar to ordination. Clearly some chose to leave….their prerogative of course. In doing so they deprived us of their counsel and they deprived themselves of the opportunity to engage with those who think differently and in doing so find common ground.

    So, my friend, we clearly see things differently. What you see as liberals trying to control things, I see as liberals (or whomever) trying to make space and accommodate others….even when there is no reciprocation.

  • P.S. – I don’t know where you are or were you have experienced a lack of “thinking and reasoning,” but I have witnessed just the opposite. I’m more of the opinion that some of this we have thought and reasoned to death and we needed to move more expeditiously to make decisions and get on with our part of God’s mission on earth. We’ve actually been thinking and reasoning on some of the “hot button” topics for nearly four decades.

  • Several excellent ideas there. A fresh look on this particular material.
    Short, but sweet, the best way to put information across.

    Thanks a bunch again for discussing.