Jodi Houge, a pastor in Minnesota, talks about the shifting church culture in the U.S. and what it’s like to hold services in coffee shops and bars.
A study from the Pew Research Center connects these patterns to the overall declines among mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, which some feel is a result of the inability of religious institutions to adapt to a population that has become more diverse and slightly more progressive. Women, for example, are still prohibited from being ordained in some religious groups, including Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Southern Baptists. In 2012, only 11 percent of U.S. congregations were woman-led, up from nearly 8 percent in 2007.
I spoke with Jodi Houge, the pastor of Humble Walk Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, about what it is like being a female clergy member, how American churches are adjusting to the decline in religious participation, and how she’s connected with her community by holding services at a coffee shop. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What inspired you to become a pastor?
Jodi Houge: I worked at a bible camp the summer after my freshman year of college. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’d be good at this job.” I just didn’t want to move home. Then, I actually loved it. I have been a cradle Lutheran Christian, and so this was the first time at age 18 that I had an opportunity to articulate some of those beliefs out loud. I went back the next summer and the one after that. Then I was a college graduate without a plan, and I took another camp job in north Idaho because I wanted to live in the mountains. That turned into full-time youth work in the church, which I did for 10 years. I thought I would probably do that forever because I loved it so much, even though I felt woefully unprepared theologically.
Then, I got married and had a child. All of a sudden, my job didn’t feel like it was possible to do in the way I wanted to do it and parent in the way I wanted to be a parent. Being a full-time youth minister was very time intensive and demanding.
Green: What kind of work is involved in being a youth minister?
Houge: I was in charge of all of the programming for fifth grade through 12th grade in a Lutheran church. There would be weekly events during the school year, and then in the summer I would take seventh and eighth graders to camp, and high-school students on a service-learning trip across the country. It was week after week of being gone. I resigned and decided it would be a great time to do grad school.
I went to seminary school with a baby at home, and I told everyone I was going to get my master’s degree in divinity to become a pastor. In my heart, I thought that I wouldn’t finish because I didn’t want to be a smelly old pastor. This sounded like a terrible life sentence.
But my first year of seminary was thrilling. It was everything that I had wanted to learn my whole adult life; all the dots were connecting. I said, “Oh my word, I am going to be a smelly old pastor.” I couldn’t even picture the type of church that would call me as their pastor because it just seemed like it didn’t fit with my skills or how I saw church.
Houge: I hadn’t ever met a female clergy until way beyond college. All of the pastors I knew were old, white men up until that point. The idea of me—with dreadlocks—I just couldn’t see myself in that group.
The beautiful thing is, when I got to seminary, all God’s children were there. The group was half female, and many were 10 to 15 years younger than me. That was a shift. Good change takes so long, and we are on the edge of a seismic shift in mainstream churches. Those men, they’re retiring and their work is nearly done, which opens up a whole lot of space for the rest of us who are ready to lead.
Green: Churches have had a difficult time attracting Millennials, and there’s been an overall decline in religious participation in America. Do you think this shift is going to change the way that people interact with the church?
Houge: There’s no other possible way. The culture has shifted so much and the church has been slow to respond. We’re finally waking up to our need for a great change. In the last 10 years, everyone is in a grieving process at most of the clergy tables that I sit at because nobody quite knows how to do their job anymore. Church leaders feel very scared because the way that they were trained to do their job no longer works.
There was this idea of the 1950s church, where everybody goes to on Sunday morning and you bring your kids, and there’s Sunday school. I wasn’t alive then, but I’m not actually sure that was even true. In the Midwest, it was only true for a slice of people—mainly upper-middle class white folks. The grief is all tied into how we thought church was in its glory days. I don’t necessarily think it was so glorious, so I’m okay letting it go.
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