Nadia Bolz-Weber produces an unusual sight these days—a packed church. She is selling out venues on her current book tour and drawing fans and followers from every age bracket. In Houston, over 600 people gathered on a rainy Tuesday to see her in a downtown church. Her audience looked like a cross between a PFLAG convention and a women’s-lib celebration.
After she’s introduced as a “public theologian” and a “prophetic leader,” Bolz-Weber bounds onto the stage wearing dark clothing, a large belt buckle, bright blue boots, and dark red lipstick. Her low-cut V-neck shirt reveals her tattoo necklace. In her opening mantra, she invites everyone to “exhale the bullshit.”
Bolz-Weber is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a denomination that she says “ordains the ladies and the gays.” After she went through an amicable divorce in 2016 and experienced “profound healing” in an intimate relationship, she began to research how the Church’s teachings about sex have affected people. The result is her third New York Times best-seller, a book titled Shameless: A Sexual Reformation.
To heal some of the harm done in the name of religion, Bolz-Weber advocates that pastors “start with reality—start with what people are actually experiencing, and not with some doctrine.” She is also an advocate for compassion, because “it allows me to access my own humanity. We’re in more danger of harming people when we think we’re being virtuous,” she explains. “Compassion makes the needle move.”
One of her goals is to “help create a brave space where people are emboldened to tell their stories.” She creates brave space by sharing her experiences, listening with empathy devoid of criticism, and conveying her love for wounded people. “Shame doesn’t come from God,” she says. “It comes from people [who think they’re] speaking for God. God saves us in our bodies, not from our bodies,” she emphasizes.
Bolz-Weber has gained a faithful following with talks such as “Returning to God with All Our Hearts—Even the Super-Crappy Parts.”
In her first book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, she chronicled her journey from her Christian upbringing in Denver, Colorado, to dropping out of college and becoming a stand-up comic. In those days, she says she decorated her bedroom floor “with my empty vodka bottles, which were endlessly being kicked over by my roommates and their boyfriends and girlfriends—whom I would ‘accidentally’ sleep with.”
There was a time when Bolz-Weber didn’t think she’d live to see her 30th birthday. She sobered up in 1991, and after that returned to college, graduated from seminary, and founded a Denver church called House for All Sinners and Saints. She talks about her ministry in her second book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.
With her humor, striking looks, raw story, artistry, and dedication, Bolz-Weber has become an international speaker, a bellwether heralding change, and an inspiration for those who’ve lost faith or never had it, but who are still seeking community. “Authenticity and vulnerability are invitational,” she says. “If I admit something difficult about myself, then that creates space that others can step into to consider and speak that truth about themselves.”
One of her themes is that people can release being tormented by thoughts of falling short of an ideal. “Our flaws, our sins, our broken parts, are all entry points for grace, so I don’t feel any shame about them,” she says. She founded her Denver church because she felt called to minister to “urban, postmodern” people like herself. She says that for her, today’s typical church services “are a combination of embarrassing and boring.”
In 2014, Bolz-Weber produced a video for a Lutheran conference about homosexuality in which LGBTQ members of her congregation talked about why they go to church. They emphasized that they don’t see themselves as an “issue.” The video is titled I Am the Church.
“I spent 10 years having nothing to do with Christianity because of being hurt by the Church,” she says. “If you don’t want to be there because you’ve been hurt, I understand that 100 percent. But also what I’ve experienced in my life, and in the life of my congregation, is that sometimes our healing happens very close to the place where the hurt came from. People have felt healed from the hurt [that a church caused] by being in a church where they don’t have to check part of themselves at the door—where what’s really encouraged is their integration, sexually, psychologically, and spiritually.”
Many in the LGBTQ community have been hurt by church leaders who misuse the Bible by quoting passages out of context. “They open this big book,” she says, “they blow the dust off, and then they say, ‘Hold on, let me read a 4,000-year-old Levitical code from a nomadic people in the Near East, and that will be God’s answer to your question.’ That’s insane, and yet that’s the approach so many of us were raised with. To me, that’s not what the Bible is for.”
The spiritual community she fosters is open and welcoming to all, whatever their faith or orientation. She says, “I feel like labels are becoming less useful, or they just mean less.” She provides an example of a young man who has a transgender boyfriend, “a female-to-male trans boy. Is he gay?” she asks. She talks about baptizing the child of an asexual couple, a man and a woman who met in a community of asexual people who want to have families. “Where do you put that?” she continues. “That’s why I just like the term ‘queer,’ honestly, because that makes so much more sense to me than all these other categories.
“Things that are uncategorizable are holy to me,” she explains. “Anytime we can get away from dualistic, categorical thinking, we’re in a holy place. Our queerness is a gift the Church needs,” she continues. “We need you to show us what we can’t see.”
Bolz-Weber’s compassion toward those outside the mainstream of society is evident in a benediction she uses: “Blessed are they who doubt—those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised. Blessed are those who still aren’t over it yet. Blessed are those who no one else notices—the kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables, the laundry guys at the hospital, the night-shift street sweepers.”
“Suffering digs something out from inside of us that joy can fill more deeply,” she says. “Our capacity to hold suffering really affects our capacity to experience joy.” When she was pastoring the church she founded, she says “there was absolute belly-laughing in our congregation. We laughed all the time, and part of that is because we are unafraid of suffering. People who have suffered are just more interesting,” she adds.
Bolz-Weber says she sees herself as more of a pastoral preacher than a political preacher, meaning she wants to “pay attention to the dynamics of people’s actual lives and what affects them.” Many of her followers are activists and people who work in nonprofit organizations, so she doesn’t feel the need to “preach some ‘Listen, bitches’ sermon trying to get them right with some issue. They’ve spent the week holding the world’s most broken realities together with Scotch tape,” she says. “They want good news. They want to be the thing that’s broken for an hour, and gets put back together.”
Her goal is “a community really rooted in its radical reorientation of the human heart—this breaking open by hearing the truth of who we are. I find that when that is the center of a community, people very naturally feel free to address the suffering in the world,” she says, “free to love the neighbor as an act of freedom. Confronting injustice [should not be just something you work on] in order to be worthy.”
On her book tour, Bolz-Weber includes a segment she calls “Q&O,” because she has a lot of opinions but no real answers. She passes out a list of resources for ongoing support, and she asks people to complete this sentence: “I’m ready to be shameless about. . .” She reads some wide-ranging responses to that question, and offers encouragement. Finally, she invites everyone to get up and dance to the Prince song “Kiss.” She explains that “Prince was extraordinary because he was so fully in his body, and he had this gender-queerness that was so sexy for everyone witnessing it. He was so unapologetically his own thing, and you can tell in his music that he was deeply connected to his own sexuality. What a wonder he was.”
And that’s what she wants for all of us. She wants us to be comfortable, connected, and expressive. In a word, shameless.
This article appears in the March 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.