This week’s question comes from a pastor whose faith journey has led her to question where she can fit as someone who is “spiritual but not religious.” Is there a place for her in the world of organized church and mainline denominations?

Her story:

I’ve been following the conversation quite closely on those who identify as SBNR (Spiritual but Not Religious) and I find myself continually drawn to this faith community.  The ways/patterns/language are typically not denominational (mainline denomination) friendly.  I’ve listened to ridicule and put downs.  I’ve heard prominent pastors laugh at finding God in sunsets insinuating this group of people is shallow and think only about themselves.   Those statement hurt.

I told my spiritual director the other day, “I am deeply spiritual in being attuned to God working in my life and what that means for me, my relationships, my decisions, and the world.  However, I don’t have a {insert F-bomb adjective} clue anymore what religious means.”


For the first time in my life, I “get” those people who enjoy the weekend for other activities besides church due to work schedules etc.  I am not missing worshipping one bit.

I am in-between calls and not able to move geographically. 

  1. Have other matriarchs grown beyond the capacity of their denomination to support them in their call? Is there a home, in mainline denominations, for Spiritual But Not Religious Pastors?
  2. Why worship?

SBNR Pastor

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

There are two responses this week. Heidi leads off with some great questions and personal reflections:

Dear SBNR Pastor-

I want to commend you for bravely working at this process of discernment about your faith, your religion and your call. These are hard questions you are asking, made more difficult because your paycheck is tied into the whole thing.

I have been wondering if there are some underlying pieces for you that aren’t so much about your denomination or your expression of your faith but are connected to the place where you most recently served.  Is there something in that story needs to be unraveled? Does your denomination not “fit” the way it used to or is it about the part of the denomination that you’ve been experiencing?

Do you have options in your area?  It’s tough when you are restricted geographically, but I hope you will keep working at finding a community where you feel fed. 

Why worship?  When I first left the parish ministry for a call to a seminary community, I spent some Sunday mornings at home, but after a while I felt like it was time to head back. (Reading  “Leaving Church” was really helpful.) I needed some recovery time, but I also needed and wanted to go to worship.  I’m a words person, so liturgy and hymns and all the words about the Word are good for me.  And I can’t do it at home by myself. I need to hear and share the Word and that requires community.

We all have our own particular reasons for going to worship and being part of a congregation or denomination. I just know that when I stopped feeling joyful (not happy, joyful) I needed to make a change. I pray you keep searching and that you find your joy as well.

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath sometimes known as RevHRod

Thank you, Heidi. What insightful questions! I especially appreciate your encouragement to determine how and why specific places might not fit, holding open the possibility that other worshipping communities and denominational settings might still fit.

And the second response is from me (Sharon):

Dear Rev. SBNR,

It’s painful to be on the receiving end of ridicule or discounting when you are taking courageous steps to be more authentic and more deeply spiritual. Those lonely steps can lead to places where others haven’t yet arrived or will never go. With the assurance that God (in whatever manifestation) remains your faithful and loving companion on the journey, your first, best human friend and cheerleader on the journey might very well be you.

I am especially intrigued by your question #1. You are likely among many Revs who have “grown beyond the capacity of [our] denominations to support [us] in [our] call” — in certain seasons, times, and places, and for a variety of reasons. Again, a rocky road. If there is a compelling reason to remain in ministry in your denomination, then access what your denominational connections can offer that do support you, your ministry and your spirit. As Heidi said, it doesn’t all have to fit perfectly to be a good enough fit.

I offer these thoughts as someone who has taken an intentional break from professional church leadership for the past six months and, during that time, I have sought, and not found, a meaningful connection with a local worshipping community. I have held on in faith that this time has been some kind of gift from God — a confusing and confounding gift, for sure. Now, at last, a clearer way forward is emerging.

Also, you are surely aware that the institutional church is going through some of those same growing pains and dying pains and “who am I now” pains. Imagine the possibilities!

So, dear SBNR Pastor: Don’t burn any bridges, take some step every day toward the God who is reaching out to you in new ways, and be open to the holy gifts that are coming. You are not alone. 

Sharon at Tidings of Comfort and Joy

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Who else can offer some compassion and encouragement to our SBNR Rev? I invite your comments and advice below.

We love questions!  If you are stuck in some area of your ministry or pastor life, let us help. Write to us at askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.

8 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: When the Pastor is Spiritual But Not Religious

  1. Dear SBNR,

    To answer your first question directly, no, my denomination does not and can not support me in the spiritual dimension of my life and call. I ask for and receive “technical” support in the form of financial, legal, and what I will call structural matters.

    Prior to ordination (in my 40s) I was nourished by my denomination, but that ceased to be the case shortly before ordination. I was led to discover various circles of people who gathered outside the institution to study, wonder, pray, serve, and imagine ways of being Christian in creative ways, some ancient and some new.

    Membership and numbers and survival and relevance are not subject matter. The goal is being transformed more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.

    We engage across geographies, gathering throughout the year for specific courses as schedules permit. Some participants are quite active in the church. A tiny percentage are ordained clergy. Our “worship” is contemplative, simple, bookended by silence, and theologically Christian.

    While I am the pastor of a mainline church, in these settings I am not clergy. I need my clergy community, but I find I also must find those places where church matters are not discussed.

    These places and people and studies feed my soul. When I am able to be physically present at a seminar or retreat, my spirit soars. My senses are heightened. My ministry in the church is enriched, and this is a wonder and a joy.

    Do I share the knowledge of my extracurricular studies and collaborations with the authorities in my denomination? No. My way of being pastor and colleague and neighbor and servant speaks volumes.

    Why worship? This, too, is my ongoing question. Today the answer (for me) is that communal prayer takes me outside of the realm of my ordinary concerns to the world of hope and possibility and resurrection. Were I to leave my vocation today I would worship (not necessarily in Church) because gathering with others is not my default. It takes discipline. Walking alone on the beach is my native form of worship, and it is worship, but in community I and we become more than our isolated selves. We are visually the Body of Christ and I need this reminder, lest I isolate.

    Confession: While on a sabbatical I did not go to formal church once, and I did not miss it. Now that I am back, the reciprocity between my job and my extracurricular communities is flowing again.

    I honor you for daring to live into your questions. Know that many of us are alongside you, wondering these same things and finding life in surprising places.


  2. Dear SBNR Pastor,

    I am so right there with you! I’m in the middle of an interim right now and I’m not sure I really want to find the next position. Part of it is the growing pains Sharon mentioned in her response and not knowing how or where pastoral and paid ministry will fit in a church of the future. But part of it is that I, too, feel a growing kinship with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. What keeps me connected and drawn back into a worshipping community is relationship. I have a strong conviction from scripture, from life experience, and from the work I do as a facilitator of Brené Brown’s Daring Way work, that we have been created for connection and relationship. Not only with God, but with one another. And, not only with one another, but with people who are different from ourselves. Oh, how I would love to find a place where everyone thinks like me! But, not only do I not think such a place is out there, but it would probably be a disaster if I were to find such a place. 😉

    My encouragement to you is: Yes, you are not alone. And ridicule is not helpful! I hope you will find be on the lookout for that community where you can shine a light and be a witness to your truth and live faithfully to the call you have been given.

    Wholeheartedly, Natalie Moon-Wainwright


  3. for a sufficiently long time now, I have been comfortable with the idea that i am Religious But Not Spiritual. Or if, (marginally more serious here just as briefly as possible) I am in any way ‘spiritual,’ than by definition that is the business, concern, affair, function, and jurisdiction of the Spirit, who like the Rum Tum Tugger “will do, as she do do, and there’s no doing anything about it” — but NOT OF ME. The religious part, that’s more up to me to be intentional about. So.


  4. I apologize that I am writing without having read other responses…but I add my support for your willingness to be honest about what’s going on for you. Have you thought of hospital chaplaincy? It actually encourages a broad and beautiful (Spiritual) way of supporting others that is often not “religious.” Will be thinking of you and hoping for joy in sunrises, sunsets and wherever else you find joy!


  5. Given where The Church (in all its forms) seems to be right now, it might be that you are in the vanguard of the future. Have you met others who seem to share that sensibility? Perhaps you could meet for coffee. If there are denominational questions about it, you can say that you are reaching out to those unserved by The Church. Community can be formed be religion, but increasingly, it is formed elsewhere. I will pray that the Spirit leads you to a place that fits for you.


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