Discover more from John Thornton Jr.'s Newsletter
I'll tell you a little bit about myself...
Something I realized I haven’t done with this newsletter is much of an introduction. Hi. I’m John. I’m a baptist pastor, and it’s weird to me too. I’m also a former (very amateur) standup comic and a democratic socialist.
I’m currently the co-pastor of missions and outreach at Ephesus Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC. I’m coming up on my one month anniversary at the church. We’re a small, baptist congregation right between Durham and Chapel Hill. We’re also in the midst of re-planting the church. The way I’ve put it is that after a few decades of struggling to grow, the congregation realized that they couldn’t survive 2019 doing what they’d always done. My friend, Kevin, has served as their pastor for the last 3 years and in October he got the idea to re-plant the church. This meant taking some time off of regular worship, releasing some funds that the church had raised at one point to build a building they never got to, hiring two other co-pastors alongside Kevin, and renaming the church to begin in the fall. And low and behold, the church went for it. It’s been amazing to see an older group of Christians so dedicated to their community that they actually give up. Not that they’re leaving, but they’ve let go of the future they once aspired to for the church and and have gotten on board with a new, albeit unknown direction. You can read a little more about it on the church’s site HERE.
When asked what we’re going to do in the fall, I usually tell people “We’re going to worship, eat together, struggle for justice (particularly workplace union organizing), and pay off people’s debts. The goal is somewhere between $25k-$35k in the first year.” At a time when it seems like just about everyone lives paycheck to paycheck and an entire generation has tons of student debt, what does it look like for a church live as an institution and community of hope? This question drives what it is we’ll be doing at Jubilee Baptist in the fall.
All of this coincided with me completely burning out of a larger, established downtown church in Winston-Salem. I began working there in June of 2017 and about this time a year ago, the level of stress and anxiety I lived with began rising. I’ve thought a lot about what caused it all, how it could’ve gone differently. Ultimately what I came to realize was that I simply had values and convictions that were too strongly at odds with too many in the congregation. It wasn’t just that I had to do work in which I worried that the ends didn’t justify the means. It was that I thought many of the ends to which I was working weren’t helpful, good, or faithful. As I’ve talked with other ministers that have burned out I’ve come to see that this lies at the heart of burnout for so many people that do work in some sort of profession that involves people’s values at a deep level.
I’ve heard similar things from social workers and teachers. We know people are far more polarized in their politics (and let’s just take those as a kind of proxy for their values) than they have been in the last 30 years. While a minister in the 1990’s might have been slightly more liberal, progressive, or left (I don’t really care for these terms but you know what I mean) than many of their congregants, they could still orchestrate various ministries, Bible studies, and sermons to move people from where they are to where they ought to be. In doing so, you had to accept some level of selling out or compromise. At this point, it’s not about compromise but actual conflict. What do we do when the values congregants and a larger community hold outright conflict with those of a minister? I think we’re seeing the answers and it’s not pretty.
I don’t have much advice for ministers (or anyone) that’s experiencing burnout. I’m not sure “make sure one of your best friends has a dream job with a salary in the city you went to grad school and in which many of your best friends still live waiting for you when you bottom out” would be widely applicable.
I’m also a writer and that’s less weird to me these days. Aside from a few small pieces for a baptist publication, I hadn’t had any writing published this time last year. It’s been a really fun journey developing as a writer. My first piece co-authored with my friend Chris was on why Christians should pay attention to socialism and the fact that so many people find socialism a compelling political project at the moment. I’ve written a number of smaller pieces for Sojourners and was actually had my name on the cover for their most recent issue. I reviewed Malcolm Harris’s book Kids These Days for Commonweal. I wrote about what it was like working with the youth at the church as I asked them about their experiences of anxiety and stress for Vox. I wrote about student debt and formation for Plough Publishing’s quarterly.
I told someone recently that I’m pretty embarrassed when I tell people I’m a pastor because I don’t want them to think I’m like a bunch of the pastors they probably know. At the same time, I’m embarrassed to call my self a writer because I don’t want them to think I’m qualified to identify with writers I admire. Ultimately I’m still lame enough to identify as a pastor, and just qualified enough to identify as a writer.
This is probably the most I’ll write about myself for this newsletter. I plan on using it for short reflections on whatever I happen to be thinking through for the week. The other day D.L. Mayfield (who you should follow on twitter) asked her followers why they write. I replied, “For me it's become a practice of faith seeking understanding. I need the practice of putting ideas and stories down to communicate what I'm finding, first to myself and then to others.”
Take faith in a broad sense. I have faith in God (most of the time), but also faith in my friends and churches. I have faith that things can and possibly could be much better than they are. I have faith that the current, depressing state of the world and most institutions in it (including churches) need not necessarily be the final word. I believe there’ll come a day when capitalism will end. I write from that faith I have in those things in order to understand them better, in order to see just a little more clearly how we can live together in better, less depraved ways.
I’ve never been one to enjoy books about how to be a pastor or Leader or Create Innovative Change Strategies. I end up learning more about how to lead and/or change the world by reading political theory, the criticism of Susan Sontag, the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, the essays of Kiese Laymon, a study on survey results about how people approach their political beliefs (coming next week), the policy papers put out by Matt Bruenig and the People’s Policy Project, and occasionally theology. Usually I read a book and have a stray thought I want to develop and understand a little better and see what kind of use it has. Often that will be most directly applicable to work in a church, but my sense is they’ll work for other institutions as well. That’s what I plan to use this newsletter for and you can see examples of that in the past few entries.
Okay that’s all for now. If you know someone that might be interested in this newsletter, I hope this can serve as a decent introduction to who I am and what I hope to send out each week.