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Doubt in the Pulpit: How to Handle Tough Questions

New York City’s Riverside Church has a new pastor, Rev. Amy Butler, is not new to conflict and difficult discussions. From the article from the Washington Post, she is open about her struggles with faith and God, even while she has led a congregation. From the article,

A mother of three children ages 16, 17 and 20, Butler went through a painful divorce while at Calvary and wrote bluntly about her own challenges and doubts earlier in her tenure. Tension had risen so high at the church that Butler hired a professional coach to help.

The coach first asked her about her own relationship with God.

“The question hit hard and deep,” Butler wrote last January in her biweekly column for ABP News/Herald, an independent news service of the Associated Baptist Press. “I immediately responded: ‘I don’t think I believe in God anymore.’ ”

The coach replied: “Don’t ever say that again. You’re the pastor, and that kind of comment is not appropriate in church.”

“I heard his message loud and clear: Church should never be a place where you ask questions, and it should certainly never be a place where you wonder out loud if God even exists,” she wrote.

“After that, I fired him.”

Butler thinks it’s imperative for churches to consider these hard questions, and she encouraged them at Calvary.

“I said, ‘I’m walking on this journey with you. You have questions. I have questions. Let’s voice them together and see where God shows up.’ ”

Taylor said trying to find the answers to their problems together united Calvary.

“She taught us a lot about how to handle conflicts,” Taylor said. “She said it’s okay to disagree, but here’s how to do it in a healthy way.”

Often, congregations and pastors want to give the perception that everything is fine within their church, within their own minds, within their faith lives. But everyone struggles with issues related to religiosity — whether those issues are issues of belief in God, questioning God’s role in one’s life, differences in ideas of God’s role in the community or congregation, or others — and hiding those questions just obscures genuine feelings and emotions.

However, being open and honest about ones doubts and fears can be scary and intimidating. But, as Amy Butler points out, people are interested in discussions about real and genuine topics. She is quoted as saying,

“People are looking for two things: community and a place that asks the big questions. Churches that allow and welcome this are going to survive and thrive.”

What is your faith community doing to build community and ask big questions? Is your community hiding behind obscuring problems of doubt and fear through “acting happy?” Asking big questions may alienate some members of your community — long-standing members who are uncomfortable with being honest about belief and doubt — but, in the end, what you want to have are members who are willing to be honest and open, devoted to the strength and growth of the community as a whole.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org