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Headed for a larger stage, Nadia Bolz-Weber leaves her ‘house’ in order

Congregants pray over the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber during her farewell service at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver on July 8, 2018. (Photo by the Rev. Theresa S. Thames)

(RNS) — With silvering hair, dark makeup and liturgically inspired tattoos, Nadia Bolz-Weber stood late on a Sunday afternoon in early July to celebrate her final service as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, the Denver church she founded a decade ago as a 39-year-old divinity student.

The service was like any other at HFASS (pronounced “half-ass”): children played freely in the aisles, the a capella choir finished its opening hymn and Bolz-Weber invoked God using both feminine and masculine imagery. Only the regular members might have noticed the presence of so many first-timers packing the church, taking a final opportunity to hear its celebrity pastor preach.

In mid-June, Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran and now one of the best-known mainline Protestant preachers in the country, announced she would be leaving to explore life as a full-time “public theologian.”

“This church is the great love of my life, and always will be,” she said in a farewell speech during the service.

Bolz-Weber said she had decided to step away only recently and still can’t entirely explain what made her feel like it was the right time. She reached a point, she said, where “the church still loves me, but I don’t think the church still needs me.”

“I was aware how dangerous it was for founders to stay too long,” Bolz-Weber later told Religion News Service.

Bolz-Weber tears up as congregants pray over her during a farewell service at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver on July 8, 2018. (Photo by the Rev. Theresa S. Thames)

But there were signs, too, that she had done all she could do at HFASS. “I didn’t come to this job with everything, but it felt like I was equipped with the ability to welcome thousands of people through the doors,” she said. “I was at a retreat recently where there were 30 people I didn’t recognize, and I just had this feeling like, ‘I can’t welcome any more people.’”

Bolz-Weber’s signature talent is welcoming people who think the church wouldn’t welcome them. The eight people who showed up in her living room for a Sunday evening service in 2008 were mostly LGBT people, those with religious baggage, addicts and others who don’t fit at many Sunday services but want to experience God’s grace. Bolz-Weber, a former standup comedian and recovering alcoholic with a streak of dark humor, felt sent to minister to them.

She granted congregants latitude to make up their own rituals, including delivering food to those who had to work on Thanksgiving and a yearly “blessing of the bicycles.”

In 2011, after preaching at an annual Easter sunrise service at Red Rocks, the Denver Post put Bolz-Weber on its front page. Bolz-Weber was horrified, she later told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” when suburbanites subsequently started showing up to HFASS. (She said she warmed up to it.) Today, the congregation’s roughly 500 “housemates” meet in a large community church in downtown Denver.

By 2015, Bolz-Weber had put two books, “Pastrix” and “Accidental Saints,” on the New York Times bestseller list. (A new one, titled “Shameless: A Sexual Revolution,” is due out in January.) She lectures constantly — most recently at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering, to theologians at Pepperdine University and at the feminist MAKERS Conference in San Francisco. Her admirers range from conservative columnist Rod Dreher to Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King.

She has also given up handling the day-to-day business of the church, making her official break all but a formality.

Bolz-Weber is hardly the only celebrity pastor to walk away from local church ministry. Recently, evangelical pastor Eugene Cho announced he is leaving the Seattle church he founded in 2001 to devote himself to anti-poverty work. Four years ago, Rob Bell left his Michigan megachurch, Mars Hill, after 12 years to focus on speaking and writing.

Unlike these pastors, Bolz-Weber is leaving in part to increase her contact with secular audiences — as she calls it, “preaching to the Gentiles.”

“There’s a hunger for the basic message of the gospel,” she said. “Most people aren’t going to show up to church on Sunday morning … but it doesn’t mean that the message of the gospel can’t still be freeing to them.”

In Denver, many are asking what will become of House for All Sinners and Saints after its founding pastor’s departure.

The Rev. Reagan Humber, left, speaks during a farewell service for Bolz-Weber at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver on July 8, 2018. (Photo by the Rev. Theresa S. Thames)

Since Bolz-Weber hired Reagan Humber in 2015, nine months before he became an Episcopal priest, she told him to prepare for the day she would leave. Humber admitted he was still shocked when the time came.

Now HFASS’ pastor, Humber said in an email to RNS that he expected that Bolz-Weber’s departure would benefit the community. “Being a pastor isn’t about me and it’s not about Nadia,” he wrote. “Being a pastor is about the whole community, it’s about feeding the whole body of Christ.”

Humber, who will take over as pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. (Photo by the Rev. Theresa S. Thames)

Humber takes comfort in the idea that HFASS doesn’t look for perfection. “Sure, we’re going to screw some things up,” he said. “But when we screw things up and then still come back the next week, that’s where the grace happens. That’s when church gets real and the dead are raised.”

That collaborative style has made HFASS a powerful model, said Boyung Lee, dean of the faculty at Iliff School of Theology who once taught Humber at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

“There are many younger people who have had wounding experiences with organized religion but still want to find a relationship with God through community,” said Lee. “I think HFASS provides that space.”

Humber, who came to HFASS from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, is well-equipped to carry on the church’s alternative vibe. His partner is a hair stylist who moonlights as the drag queen Fruitbomb, and Humber is open about his struggles with opiates and alcohol.

“People in recovery know what it’s like to be at the end of your ability, and that’s powerful,” said Asher O’Callaghan, a longtime HFASS member who is the first transgender person to be ordained in the ELCA. O’Callaghan was drawn to Bolz-Weber, he said, because she leads from a place of vulnerability, a trait he feels Humber shares.

As Bolz-Weber’s final service wound down, parishioners came forward to receive blessings from her; at the end, the congregation returned the favor, performing a traditional laying on of hands.

Then, folding tables were brought out for a classic Lutheran potluck consisting mainly of casseroles. A woman sang a song mocking the criticism Bolz-Weber occasionally receives for being too progressive and overly tattooed. The congregation’s parting gift was a stole with images of Wonder Woman on it.

Touched, Bolz-Weber thanked the crowd. She’s confident about the future of HFASS and its mission.

“This church has never been mine,” she said. “It has always been God’s.”

About the author

Carina Julig

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  • If she is supporting homosexuality, she’s a fraud. Christians do not support homosexuals on their journey to Hell.

  • Bolz-Weber’s signature talent is welcoming people who think the church wouldn’t welcome them.

    Sounds exactly like the sort of people Jesus sought out, people on the margins whom the rest of society cast out there. Something tells me Jesus would feel right at home in such a place.

  • Even though this was a well-written Puff Piece, (and wasn’t that just the cutest little owl creature depicted on the new pastor”s clergy robe?), there comes a time when somebody gotta speak the truth around here.

    Looks like you’re the one for today, Sandi. So I gotta Upvote you again.

    C’mon people. I know Bolz-Weber sincerely wanted to reach out to the unreached and welcome the unwelcomed. I get that part. But this current situation is wack.

    When the new First Lady of a Christian church is an active drag queen named “Fruitbomb”, you know you’ve got a problem of Biblical proportions.

  • you are among those who see “a problem of Biblical proportions” in something that is never talked of by jesus , i would be more impressed by your “speak[ing] the truth” here if you actually pointed to the major concerns that jesus preached on .

  • Love the name of the Church All Saints and Sinners. The Church needs to develop alternative methods of worship to attract and retain the demand of an increasingly diverse population. The Lutheran Church cannot rely just on those who were born into or married a Lutheran. It has a healthy alternative to the Roman and Non-denominational/ pseudo evangelicals churches. A Biblical theology with a respect for innovation and or tradition in its worship services and liturgical calendar.

  • no judging necessary – those who intend to lead others to Hell, are not saved. Christians lead people to Christ – not Hell

  • Thank you, floydlee. Your last statement said it best, “…you know you’ve got a problem of Biblical proportions.” and I pity anyone attending that assembly.
    Yes, they were sincere about helping people, they just are not helping them in a Godly direction.

  • you are judging . you are publicly assuming that you know the people involved, exactly what they are doing and applying your interpretation of the bible to their situation .

    you are judging and then dodging by pretending that you are only making broad statements about them .

  • sand, you show that you can throw bible verses around . a verse from here, a verse from there .

    you have not shown that you know jesus either . just that you can throw verses .

    i have questioned you several times and have yet had a discussion from you . just more isolated bible verses . do you understand them ? in context ?

  • Thanks. I often hear that from people who can find nothing else to argue about. Blessings. I trust the scripture helped you.

  • So…exactly how many times did Jesus say “Go and sin no more” in scripture? Because I count once, maybe twice if you change the words around a little. He certainly told people to “love one another” far, far more frequently. And he gave us lots of great examples! Are you claiming to know as much about a whole congregation’s sins as Jesus? I hope you love them as much as he does, then.

  • No. Christ won’t support people going to Hell, and celebrating His death while sinning unrepentantly against Him. It’s just that way

  • It makes me so sad to see that so many Christians have taken a stand on an issue that Jesus never spoke about. Jesus’ first and second commandments set a clear picture of the life Jesus expects us to lead. And neither they nor the story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus uses to exemplify these commandments suggest that an important part of Christian life is persecuting people who are LGTBQ.

    “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    That’s LOVE. Not if you deny gay and lesbian people goods, services, rights, and membership in Christian communities.

  • I don’t know, it looks like the kingdom of God that Jesus was continually working for to me.

  • This will teach you Who Jesus is, and what He said on the issue
    John 1:1-5
    Leviticus 18:1-5
    Lying to them that they are in a relationship with Jesus while actively, unrepentantly sinning against him, is not loving them.

  • Obviously, they are not being discouraged from sinning at your church or at least not doing an effective job of it.

  • your way is to toss off irrelevant quotes that miss the mark . of course jesus would not “support” people sinning . but here you are assuming who that might be .

    you have come to a conclusion as to what is evil and then you cram bible quotes into that context to prove your point . the bible does not work that way .

    i would suggest, sand, that you see to your rightwiseness before you say others are not rightwise .

    judge not ….

  • in 1 corinthians 10 paul is speaking that one may not worship idols, a popular activity in greece at that time, and then come and come the christian table for community and communion .

    your use of it here regarding church people that you don’t care for makes no sense .

    stop using the bible as something that you can rip apart for a verse here and a verse there . you don’t prove your point . you prove that you don’t really understand the bible as well as you think you do .

  • you seem not to be able to answer my questions .

    you either don’t understand the questions i pose, or you are simply ducking them .

    you do understand that the books of the bible were written separately, by different authors to bring new perceptions and knowledge about the revelation of god ? you can’t just mash them together to pull out quotes, one from here, one from there . you can’t take it for granted that they will add up to the result that you think should be there .

    scripture helps you or i will read the way it was inspired and written . not just to prove your points .

  • From the tone of your posts, I would say the pastor is incompetent, ineffective or does not know what real significant sins are when preaching on sin.

  • perhaps . and perhaps you also .

    so let us discuss how i approach the bible, and how you approach the bible .

    your use of the bible so far, while frequent, has not suggested that you are familiar with what the writers were trying to tell us .

  • “I said it accurately” .

    the words of 1 corinthians 13 were accurate, but they were referred to something totally different . that as if you were in the right pew but inside the wrong church .

    so words accurate, use wrong .

  • you know sand that jesus never said leviticus 18:1-5 .

    quote leviticus as what the god of leviticus said . quote matthew, mark, luke and john as the saying of jesus, the christ .

  • i am not interested in proving anything . i am interested in seeing scripture used to mean what it says . nothing more, nothing less .

  • if you cannot prove me wrong, then perhaps – God willing- I am not, and you are the problem. Enough said. Blessings.

  • You obviously did not check the scripture I tried to help you with. With that said, if you don’t want help, and cannot overcome what I am saying, then perhaps it is time you stopped trying to pester me. Blessings

  • There was nothing wrong. You may be interested in Romans 1:21-25. That will help you. Blessings.

  • again on idolatry . there is nothing wrong in preaching against idolatry when someone is worshiping a god other than yahweh, so you will be prepared when that happens .

    what is your problem with this article again ?

  • I’ve made my concerns clear honey and told you how to rectify yours. Again, blessings…

  • Great, she is going to become a “public theologian”. As if we don’t already have enough crackpots spreading false doctrine around, now we get this “pastor” leaving a “church” full of unrepentant sinners in the care of a homosexual “pastor” who is likewise an unrepentant sinner that is apparently proud of that fact.

  • Hopefully your church will get a competent pastor who knows the whole spectrum of sin including the hate you spread.

  • the text proved that you misused it . you denied it without explanation .

    paul in the text speaks of those engaged in pagan idol worship and who then come to a christian worship to join in .

    you used it wrong . q.e.d. : thus demonstrated

  • homosexuals engage in idol worship. Christ does not endorse homosexuality, thus, they follow an idol, not the Lord.

  • that is nonsense . like people everywhere some may . more are good religious christians .

    people you don’t like, of any sort, do not “engage in idol worship” just because you think evil of them .

  • paul explains things in romans . there paul urges us, instructs us, nudges us, commands us, beseeches us, implores us to follow christ and much more . the one thing that does not happen in romans is christ telling us anything directly .

    paul does . not christ .

    paul talks of those : “21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

    and those gave themselves over to sin . here paul give a catalog of sins . among those are those who give themselves over to lust . not included are those who have sex in faithful, committed and caring relationships .

    you assume and you judge people and situations you don’t know . your problem . not mine or theirs .

  • Christ probably hoped that people suffering from s/s attraction wouldn’t lie to themselves to the point where they would conflate it with “committed and caring” relationships. How many times did you need to be told not to murder?

  • as christ never spoke of it in the gospels, christ likely never thought of the subject .

    if you cannot separate in your mind the idea of people given over to lust, whether heterosexual or homosexual, with people in ” ‘committed and caring’ relationships ” , you have no handle on what paul was speaking of .

  • ah, well it is good to see you there. I was worried about you. Good to see you back.
    As far as Heaven for me, I’ll be meeting with the Lord and spending eternity with Him, and that’s all I’m looking for, for you. Choose life George.

  • what i “do not” is accept the sandinwindsor bible interpretation which ignores the teaching of christ and misrepresents the teaching of paul .

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