Q and A with the Naked Pastor
One of the most interesting blogs I’ve ever seen is the nakedpastor site, run by David Hayward (pictured right). As implied by David’s self-description as “a graffiti artist on the walls of religion”, he draws a lot of cartoons dealing with church and his experiences of it, but he also writes in a very engaging and thought-provoking way that defies labels. A while ago, he very kindly agreed to do a short Q&A with me, which turned into quite a long one as the conversation flowed, and could easily have been longer still. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.
You write and draw under the name “nakedpastor”. Are you really a pastor? And why are you naked?
I chose the name nakedpastor many years ago. At the time I was actually pastoring a local church. I was ordained in 1987 and that had been my career right up until 2010. I chose the name to signify me as a pastor baring my soul. I wanted to write a blog that was honest, open and authentic about a pastor’s life. Recently someone asked me if “nakedpastor” signified a pastor stripped of a church. That works now too.
I don’t pastor a local congregation now, but I do a lot of what feels like pastoral work online. It keeps me very busy and I enjoy it very much.
What kind of pastoral work do you do?
Some people insist that once a pastor, always a pastor. A good friend told me that, just like a doctor who might not have an office right now but is still a doctor, I am a pastor even though I don’t have a local church. In some ways I feel he is wrong because you aren’t a pastor without people to pastor. That is, if people don’t recognize you as their pastor, then you aren’t a pastor. Theirs anyway. However, I have found many people who look to me for pastoral kind of things. I am counseling people every day – spiritual coaching, teaching, caring, helping an online community function in a healthy manner. I teach every day. I see my art and cartoons as kind of parables. I teach with cartoons. Although I write as well. But people seem more interested in what I have to draw than what I have to write.
Who do you consider to be your flock?
I wouldn’t use the word “flock” anymore because it implies docility. And if you are at all aware of my blog, my readers seem anything but docile. But the people who seem to be gathering around nakedpastor are an interesting bunch, including me! Mostly, the vast majority of people who gather around nakedpastor seem to be those who have left the church or those who are not sure they can stay. This includes clergy. They are also mostly people who are looking for resources, community and conversations that validate their own journey, including agnostics and atheists and people who still consider themselves Christians.
It’s interesting that although the commenters on your blog tend to be dissenters of one form or another, and you definitely don’t seem to pull any punches or sugar-coat your view of the church, at the same time it all seems to be underpinned by a sense of affection, or at least a sort of longing for something the church once offered you, or should have offered. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Thanks for that thoughtful insight. Not many people see that. But I do insist that I love the church and believe in it. I believe in the right of people to gather together volitionally and in a healthy manner. I continually address what is wrong with the church which is continuously undermining what it is intended to do. There is no perfect church, only perfect moments, and the trick is to multiply and extend these moments. I’ve seen it happen and it is wonderful. However, it usually gets overrun with such things as “vision” and “mission” and “moral standards”, etc…
I generally like the calibre of discussion on nakedpastor because, like you said, it isn’t just a bitch-fest or bitter rant. It’s a genuine critique of what’s gone wrong or is wrong with the church and what can we do about it.
You say you believe in the church. Do you think you could unpack that a little more? What does belief in the church mean to you?
Like I said, there are no perfect churches, only perfect moments. The trick is to extend these moments and increase them. I have had incredible experiences in the church. Very very positive. They are proof to me that church can really work. Church just is. It’s simply where people are gathered in Jesus’ name, as the bible says. So it just is. It’s when we start dressing it in all kinds of ridiculous efforts and strategies and visions and goals that it gets totally messed up. So I believe in it just like I believe in my own family. It just is, and it has the right to be.
Despite that belief, it seems that the church often fails to work in the way you describe. What do you think it would look like if the church was doing things right?
I don’t have a manifesto of a working church. As soon as you define what churches “should” be, you form a pattern of expectation which does violence to the way a local church actually is. I often compare church to marriage. I reject all notions such as “the wife should be in the kitchen…” etc, as I believe most people do. So we reject too detailed gender role stuff. However, on a deeper level we do have some ideas about what a good marriage would be, such as mutual respect, unconditional love, freedom to be uniquely you, etc – church is the same way. Don’t talk about vision, because once you do you set up an ideal expectation, then you set up the well defined business plan to get there. Throw all that away and just learn about mutual respect, freedom, love, etc – we did this in my last church and there were frequent moments of incredible beauty.
I wrote a book on vision: “Without a Vision My People Prosper” available on Amazon.
I notice that the things you cherish are more or less secular community values. Is there any room within that for doctrine?
I guess my understanding for community is very broad. The only gauge we have for measuring its health are human ones – lofty ones, but human. Measuring a community by gifts is unhealthy, but measuring a community’s health by fruit – love, patience, etc – these are the highest of human achievement. That’s what makes for healthy community: what it actually does when it gathers in form – preaching, worship, giving, prayer, gifts, etc – all that is adjustable according to each community.
Can preaching, worship, prayer and so on coexist with a rejection of all preconceived notions about church – aren’t they manifestations of the most basic notions of church? I acknowledge that you say they can be adjusted, but how far can you go down that road while still being a church?
Yes, the way we behave or ought to behave are simply the highest of human virtues. Whatever we do in terms of worship, prayer, music, teaching, etc, will be Christian and will resemble in some way or another traditional forms. It’s like a healthy family. How they behave and relate and communicate together will resemble other healthy families. However, what they eat or how they eat or what they do for free time and vacations or how they dress – all that – will be diverse.
You recently tweeted about being both Christian and atheist, which caused a bit of a stir and led Hemant Mehta to tease you a bit, encouraging you to come out as a proper atheist. I know you don’t like labels, but it’s a little confusing, so is it possible to summarise what you actually believe?
I can’t explain my position simply. Maybe this post will help.
I wouldn’t say I have a “consistent belief system” or that there is even one to have. I have said elsewhere that the bible is its own worst enemy. It undermines its own authority, as it should. To me it is only a sign pointing to a greater reality, and that sign has entirely been built by men. So it is terribly flawed. However, it’s what we have. It is beautiful in many ways and full of truth. That’s why I love it and quote it. It is a marvelous pointer to a deeper truth, what is real, what is.
It’s clear from your bio that you’ve been through a lot of changes in belief and practice. How have your family dealt with that? Has it put your relationships under strain?
My wife and I have struggled together. We’ve learned the art of growing separately together. Loving each other unconditionally of course is the root of it. But it has been good. My kids have suffered. Their spirituality has been forged in the fires of church conflict. They’ve seen us, and them indirectly, suffer cruelty at the hands of the church, and they are not impressed. But they walk their own spiritual paths in a way I respect but may not always agree with.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone leaving the church, or considering it, what would it be?
Get a spiritual counselor/director or coach. Mine saved my ass. I’m serious. It was probably the worst two years of my entire life, and I’ve been through a lot. Especially the second year after leaving the church – I nearly lost it all. Find a counselor or a small group you trust and can spill to.
David has recently launched a new subscription-only website for people going through spiritual transition.
Images courtesy of David Hayward.