Public theologian — a pastor who ‘sits with weirdoes’ — will be 2023 Synod keynoter
The keynote speaker has been named for the United Church of Christ’s 2023 General Synod. She’s a Lutheran minister described by one national news service as “a former standup comedian and recovering alcoholic with a streak of dark humor.”
Another news outlet noted her “unusual form of evangelism,” which “may be the only kind that can break through the crust of dislike and suspicion which insulates increasing numbers of younger Americans from Christianity.”
As for herself, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber says she’s someone who “always sits in the corner with the other weirdoes.”
A best-selling author and the founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners & Saints, Bolz-Weber will speak Saturday, July 1, during the UCC’s biennial national meeting at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.
Registration will open in early January at the General Synod website. Registered visitors, like all delegates, will have access to the keynote as well as the Synod’s many exhibits and business sessions, June 30–July 4.
Having led the Denver congregation from 2008 to 2015, Bolz-Weber now pursues ministry as a “public theologian.” This takes several forms:
- Her podcast, “The Confessional,” encourages listeners to “forget the selfies and social media updates of everyone at their best.” As its host, she “invites guests to share stories about times they were at their worst.”
- She describes her interactive newsletter, “The Corners,” as “water, God willing, for those planted in the corners” of life.
- National and international news outlets have profiled her and her ministry. They include The New Yorker, BBC News, The Guardian, The Atlantic, NPR, The Washington Post, Religion News Service, and, in Germany, Die Zeit.
- She is the subject of dozens of online videos. An example is a series of brief “Have A Little Faith” episodes at the MAKERS YouTube channel. They have received tens of thousands of views.
- Her books include three memoirs that made The New York Times best-seller list: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (2013, updated 2021); Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (2015) and Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good (About Sex) (2019).
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which ordained her in 2008, formalized that ministry in 2021 when it installed her as pastor for public witness with its Rocky Mountain Synod. The ELCA is a “full communion” partner of the UCC.
‘Not like a pastor’
In a 2018 YouTube video, Bolz-Weber described growing up in Colorado in the conservative Church of Christ. “The God that I was taught to fear was like an angry, capricious bastard with a killer surveillance system who is, basically, constantly disappointed in me for being a human being,” she said.
At age 12, she was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, an auto-immune disorder that kept her from closing her eyelids. “My eyes literally bulged out of my skull,” she said. “I developed this anger about how people treated me. And it ends up that if you add a lot of drugs and alcohol to the anger, then it no longer protects you. It starts to kill you.”
The journey included dropping out of college, working in restaurants, doing stand-up comedy, eventually finding sobriety, returning to school and embracing Lutheran theology — especially its emphasis on grace. In 2004, as “literally the only religious person in my friend circle,” she was asked to lead a memorial service for a comedian friend who had died. At that point she sensed her call to ministry.
“My transparency about my failings, and all of the things that make me seem, like, not like a pastor, are what allow me to be certain people’s pastor.”
‘I love the corners’
“Rev. Bolz-Weber is a well-known public theologian who we believe has a relevant and prophetic message for the church,” said the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, UCC associate general minister and administrator of the General Synod.
“Our theme for this General Synod is ‘making all things new.’ We wanted to find a keynote speaker who could challenge and inspire the church for the opportunities that lie ahead as we move beyond the health pandemic and deal with other social justice issues that are before us. She knows the church, has a pastor’s heart, and her books have been a resource and inspiration for many.”
“It may feel as though some of us have been relegated to the corners,” Bolz-Weber says in describing her newsletter. “But here’s the thing: from the corners, I can see the whole room.
“I love the corners. I always have. It is where I will always choose to sit, because I love outcasts, queers and the girls who talk too loud. I love humor that comes out of lives that have not been easy. I love sober drunks, single dads, sex workers and the guy who lost a leg in the war. These are my people.”
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