Sarah Bessey – Navigating an Evolving Faith


In this episode, we speak with Sarah Bessey about the idea of evolving faith and its accompanying challenges. We dive into what it means to have faith during times of change and whether there are any limits to that change. Additionally, we explore the influence of Rachel Held Evans on Sarah’s personal faith journey and what insights we might be missing from Rachel’s voice in the present day. Finally, we discuss how evolving faith intersects with the idea of Christian orthodoxy and the role of community in supporting those who are wrestling with difficult questions.


Nate: Welcome back. We had a really fun chat with Sarah Bessey, the author of Jesus Feminist out of Sorts, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and also the co curator of the Evolving Faith Conference and movement. And I would encourage you to check all of that out. All the links for Sarah’s stuff is in the show notes, but yeah, I really enjoyed this chat.

Shelby: Yeah. As we talk about a bit in the show. Jesus feminist was a big part of kind of my initial journey of even opening up my faith a little bit and thinking of women as having a different role within Christianity. And and we one thing that I enjoyed talking about in this interview is, I mean, she leads a conference called Evolving Faith. And so we talked about, you know, as someone who’s a public

Shelby: nd writer about faith topics, but has been doing so for ten years or more. What does it look like to have those things change? When you’re published, your words are in stone. So it was really cool to talk to her about that and then about just being in community and trying to have conversations with people who you care about whose faiths are in different places.

Nate: Yeah, I think that was my favorite part, too, was the second half of this whole chat was about how do you have those conversations right when someone wants to have coffee with you? And even just saying that, get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. But we talked about that for quite a bit here at the end of this chat, so super excited for you to get to hear it and let us know what you think. You can send us emails. If you want to go deeper in this community, you can go to Almost and become a patron of the show. For just $5 a month, you get access to a second podcast we do called Utterly Heretical, as well as access to our monthly Zoom Calls an ad free version of the show and a private Facebook group where we all hang out and chat. And there’s a few hundred people in there to go on this journey with you. I want to thank our new patrons over the last couple of weeks, jeremy and Starla, Nicole McKinsey, Kim Bronwyn, Elise Matt, Natasha Curtis, David, and many more of you. Thank you so much for going on this journey with us, helping produce and support the show financially. All right, here’s our chat with Sarah Bessey.

Shelby: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for being here. It is really an honor to talk with you as you’ve been a really formative part of my journey just ever since, really in those initial moments of I mean, it wasn’t even deconstruction at that point. It was literally so I read Jesus Feminist and that was those initial moment of, oh, maybe women are I mean, I was at base levels, like, maybe women actually could be leaders in the church. Maybe actually women could teach. So starting to open those doors is really what led me on a very long journey that has led to where I am now and who knows where I’m going. So all that to say, it’s an honor to get to talk to you today.

Sarah Bessey: Oh, thank you so much. I love hearing that. I don’t know whether to be like, I’m sorry, and you’re welcome. Both things are probably true.

Shelby: Sure. But I would love to start off with just hearing a bit of your background and for the sake of the listeners of kind of yeah. What type of a Christian environment did you grow up in and then what have been some mile markers along the way? As we said in our introduction, you co founded Evolving Faith. And so even just a title like that clearly indicates that your faith journey has not been stagnant. And I think I can assume that you are not who you used to be, that your faith has changed significantly over the years. So if you would like to give us just a kind of 30,000 foot picture of what that journey has looked like, that would be awesome.

Sarah Bessey: Sure. Well, I think that’s definitely safe to say. I’m from Western Canada and so I grew up in kind of more of a post Christian environment in a lot of ways. And yet we kind of as a family found ourselves as like first generation believers in the charismatic renewal movement that happened in the even leading into the so very little bit of a lot of word of faith, prosperity, gospel, charismatic kind of stuff that was happening at that time period. We, of course, had no idea where we fit in the larger story of the church. And so it was kind of that experience of turn your life upside down, like super very literal, but very dear as well at the same time. Definitely its own kind of unique sort of baggage. Spiritual trauma in some ways, but also a lot of good people and a lot of sweetness to that too, that I’ve slowly been reclaiming and recognizing and honoring too. I kind of found myself in that world for a really long time. And I think that the experience, like a lot of us have of feeling like you have answers. There’s an if this, then that quality to your faith. Even at times there’s this who’s in and who’s out and us versus them. And just it’s very developmentally appropriate at the time. But what that ends up happening is then you hit these points where you’re like, wait a minute. The formula is not holding up. Or the ways that this was advertised is not exactly there. Or the doubts or the questions that you have so diligently kind of tried to Bible study your way out of seem to somehow still keep kind of crawling out and wanting to have some sort of light and air and space to them. And so that kind of launched me on a lot of my very first experiences of deconstruction, which at the time, like you said, Shelby, there was no language for that. There was no internet community for that. My experiences, like a lot of people, happened in my early twenty s the first time. I’ve had many rounds with deconstruction since then. But I think that first experience for me was motivated by religion, by politics, by larger conversations that were happening inside the church and outside the church and having this sense of like, well, if I’ve lost this, does that mean I’ve lost everything? And I think that that’s a place that sometimes they can feel a little bit like a zero sum game. And so learning through that process and learning in the 20 or 25 years since that process of understanding how developmentally normal it is, what an important part of faith formation this is how much more room and inclusion and welcome and goodness there is in God than maybe I had initially thought or even hoped for, knew to hope for. And so, yeah, that has kind of just led, I guess, to a lot of rethinking and relearning and unlearning throughout the years about scripture and God and church and people and how that shows up in the world. All those things have all been part of that process, I guess.

Shelby: That’s really beautiful and I resonate with a lot of the things that you’re saying there and that feeling of if I’ve lost this, then have I lost everything? Yet I still can vividly remember that feeling and just it felt very much like grief and just kind of emptiness for a while. And maybe that’s because we were told that without this faith, you are empty and you are directionless and you have no moral compass and all these things. So we just at first assume that that’s true and then slowly learn that maybe there’s more. Maybe we have more inside us. I’m very curious. So Jesus Feminist was kind of your first book or just your first big book?

Sarah Bessey: It was my first one altogether.

Shelby: Well done.

Sarah Bessey: Right. If there’s one way to quickly make sure everyone is very, very happy with you, it’s having a book like Jesus Feminist.

Nate: Yeah. Put you on a list right off the bat. Exactly.

Shelby: That was ten years ago, and I thought it was actually interesting. In your book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, which is about, what, four years ago now, maybe getting close to five.

Sarah Bessey: Yeah.

Shelby: Is you wrote that at the time of writing Jesus Feminist, you hadn’t actually started being comfortable using female pronouns for God, and kind of you were pointing out, like, the irony of that, and I just thought, oh, this is so interesting. That especially in the topic like evolving faith, I’m so curious of what looking back ten years. I mean, that’s quite a while and then even four or five years and then you have your book out of sorts. In between those, what are ways that you’d look back on those books and things you’ve written and what are ways you would maybe nuance or change some of the ways that are things that are written in those books, even though I think they are still wonderful pieces of writing.

Sarah Bessey: Thank you. Yeah. I think that that’s one of the challenges, maybe, of writing in the midst of your life is a sense of, like it has a permanence that your life actually doesn’t have. We do all keep growing, hopefully, right. We keep changing, we keep evolving, we keep learning. And so oftentimes, sometimes going back and reading certain aspects of things that I’ve written can feel a little bit like a time capsule. I think it’s not quite the cringe factor of when you go back and read, like, your junior high journals, but it’s close.

Shelby: Yes.

Sarah Bessey: And yet at the same time, it’s, like, hard not to love the sincerity and earnestness even of the know it allness that sometimes could show up on the page. And I think that that’s something that maybe comes with time. I have often thought that there are certain things I’m really glad I didn’t publish or didn’t put out there until some time had passed. I remember a friend of mine, Nadia Boltz Weber, talking about how she tries not to write out of the gaping wound, but out of the healed scar. That doesn’t mean I’m not writing while the gaping wound is happening. It just means it usually doesn’t see the light of day until it’s healed a wee bit, or people could go poking around it without me kind of yelping in pain. But there is this sense of looking back at some of those earlier books or earlier moments in your life and having this sense of, like, well, I can see the path I was on. So, for instance, with that one. In a lot of ways, I struggled, I think, because I grew up in a context and in a world where that was a big deal, right, where pronouns for God was a really very clear sort of line. And in some ways I was like, well, I understand why I would do something different. But I almost even made a conscious choice to try to be hospitable to people for whom it was a big deal. And I was like, so I’m going to use masculine pronouns because that will make more people more comfortable, which, again, is something else I’ve grown out of, right? Whether those are the motivations or those are the choices or those are the things you did in the moment, you can even grow out of your motivations for them. And so now, at this point, how many years later, just so incredibly comfortable with different pronouns for God in so many different ways and for so many scriptural biblical reasons? It almost feels jarring to me now when I go back and read Jesus Feminist, because it’s so much he, him, his, whatever else kind of language, I think I was still pretty deep in like a Brennan Manning phase. And so I use the word abba a lot, right?

Shelby: It does.

Sarah Bessey: It just places you at a moment in time and what you were listening to. And I’m grateful for that. But at the same time, I think almost anything, there’s growth that ends up happening. There’s places where I wish I was braver, there’s places where I knew that I held back, when maybe I could have pushed a little further when I was working really hard to make sure people were comfortable. And I think that that served the book sometimes. But then in other times, was it not as brave as it could have been? Yeah, I think that’s true, too. And I think that’s one of the benefits, maybe, of letting something kind of stand for a moment in time and a period in time. Because again, back then, when I was working on Jesus Feminist and it came out, I mean, feminism was a very hot topic, hot topic in the church. And now a lot of the things that I’m talking about in there almost feel quaint, right? It’s crazy how, sadly, not enough.

Shelby: I mean, now it’s just kind of like, oh, of course I’m a feminist. Most people are. Unless you’re a very conservative church, then that’s normal. But yeah, ten years ago it wasn’t.

Sarah Bessey: Yeah. And I think that that’s okay, right? It’s okay to say this was a moment in time at at a particular conversation in time. Would I write a very different book now? Probably. But I loved the girl I was then, and I loved the book that it was and the way it went.

Shelby: And it was the perfect book for someone like me when I was at that place. And probably if it had been using female pronouns for God, I would have said, okay, this is too far out. I can’t even read this. And so you’re right, that like it is. It’s stepping stones in a journey, and maybe it was one of my first, and yet without that first one, I don’t know if I would have been able to make it to the next.

Sarah Bessey: Maybe sometimes part of it is. And I think that’s probably a lot of what you two are trying to do here, even with the spaces and the conversations and communities that you’ve created, is this idea of building on ramps for people to not feel. So isolated, not feel so siloed, not feel so trapped and alone, but to realize that there are a lot of pathways and sometimes you just need someone to walk alongside of you, kind of in that or in that moment. And so I think that’s an important part of it as well. It’s even sometimes an act of hospitality, but that also doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes look back and be like, Yikes.

Nate: Yeah, I mean, it’s like you said it with the books and I fill out with the show, too. I’ll listen back to stuff. I mean, we’ve been on now for five years, and I listen back and it’s like, oh, I wish I could go back and change that or say that different, or I know people that, Shelby, you have a blog you’ve been doing for ten plus years or something like that.

Shelby: That is absolutely cringe when I go back all the way.

Nate: But when people find these, they kind of intersect with a blog or a podcast or a book or a series of books like you have done, Sarah, and they kind of pick it up and they start that journey with you. And I love the emails. We’ll get emails and people be like, hey, I’ve listened to you guys for the last two years, and I don’t really feel like I need it anymore. And it’s like, that’s awesome. They feel like they’re not in that place anymore where they need someone to come alongside them and help them through this kind of rocky period. I’m like, that’s awesome. That’s great. You’re launched out into now go live your life, and you’re not in that shaky spot anymore that you felt like you were in. And that kind of like along with this term of evolving faith. You have the Evolving Faith Conference that you’ve co founded, and I love that term. I found myself using that a lot on the show because I don’t really like the term deconstruction. I don’t know why. I just don’t like it. I guess it feels kind of negative, maybe, is what it is. And now the term has been kind of taken over by the desiring gods and the gospel coalitions of the world, and they want to control it a.

Shelby: Bit and all the responses to it. Yeah.

Nate: And have like, a response. But I love this term evolving faith. It’s very much looking forward. And it’s not this problem that you’re going through. It’s this, hey, we’re all changing and evolving and growing. We’re taking in new information and we’re doing something with it and we’re growing. And as opposed to kind of I feel like the opposite is kind of like conserve or hold on or in some ways even this idea of let’s go back, let’s go back. Make America, make the church, make Christianity great again. Something in the past. Right? And so I wonder if you could speak to that a little bit. When you think of the term evolving faith and the goal of the conference and the goal of this movement, what does that mean to you? Evolving faith?

Sarah Bessey: Yeah. I’ve have similar I don’t know if I would say qualms about the word deconstruction. I understand why people like it and I understand even the ubiquitousness of it. But in some ways it’s almost become like this rozark test. It only means what people think it means, and there’s so many different ways you can kind of approach it or take a run at it. And so when it came to evolving faith, it came about because Rachel Held Evans and I were close friends and fellow writers, and we’re kind of doing a lot of this work alongside of each other. And we both had young families at the time, and traveling and speaking was hard. And so we kind of had this thought of like, well, what if we tried to create just like a weekend where we can invite some people that we like and we’ll see if anybody wants to come? And at the time, I had just published out of sorts, and the subtitle for that was Making Peace with an Evolving Faith. And she had just come out with Searching for Sunday, which is an incredible book we’ve both read. Yeah. And so we kind of landed on this idea of an evolving faith. And we were really taken aback that first weekend by the response to it. I think one of the things that we realized that weekend is that this experience of having an evolving faith or being in the wilderness, which is another metaphor we use a lot, it can feel profoundly lonely in a lot of ways. It’s very isolating, I think, especially for people who grew up in particular communities or faith communities or social locations where total agreement and adherence was not only demanded but expected. And so then when you become the person who’s stepping out of line or some aspect of your identity means you were never able to be in line, then there is this element of loneliness to it. And so, like you said earlier, Shelby, there is a grief to that. And so almost this sense of like, well, we’re not as alone as we all thought we were. And so I think that that kind of was what ended up giving birth to not only the ongoing conference, but the community. It’s what has held me, I think, up quite a bit, even in the face of losing Rachel and having to see so many changes and losses along the way. There is this sense of expansiveness and community and goodness to the notion of an evolving faith, that it’s not a matter of one and done or you’ve arrived, or now everything is kind of settled and finished. I’ve kind of had the opinion for the last number of years that oftentimes when we come to these sorts of thresholds, we come to these sorts of intersections in our faith or in our experience with our spirituality, and this can happen at so many points in your life. I’ve had these conversations with 13 year olds and I have had them with 73 year olds. And so it’s not really about just stage of life. There is this sense of like, well, your two options are either, like you said, Nate, to just totally double down on it, right? Do the let’s go back to what worked before. I’m going to kind of put my fingers in my ears, pretend everything’s fine, and if I pretend it long enough and hard enough and do enough Bible studies with worksheets, then surely all my questions and doubts and problems will disappear. And then on the flip side, you can almost flip over into this like, we’ll just burn it all down. There’s nothing worth saving here. There’s nothing worth keeping. Pull everything apart and spoilers. I have done both and found both the limits and the blessings of both, and sometimes you’ve needed both, but it’s that way. I think that the thing that ended up interesting us was this idea of what does it look like to actually lean into your doubts, your questions, the things that are bothering you or keeping you up at night, and instead saying, what if I stop clinging so hard to those? And I open my hands and I find a community within this? And that’s where I think you begin to see a lot of even some of those models of faith formation, whether it’s Racor or it’s Fowler or even like, Brian McLaren’s new works that he’s doing. I’m finding really helpful in that. Richard Rohr’s two halves of life. This is hardly new stuff. And this invitation of an evolving faith just simply means that you are, like, on that journey, that you’re aware of the fact that you are not going to finish this with the exact same opinions and beliefs that you had at the beginning. And if you do, you’re probably doing it wrong, right? The invitation of your life is part of how the Holy Spirit works and speaks and cooperates and plays with us. And so I think that’s worth paying attention to.

Shelby: That’s beautiful. I remember hearing an interview with Hillary McBride years ago where they were her and several other people, and they were all being asked about their deconstruction journey. And she said, I didn’t really have a deconstruction journey because my parents were just they were therapists who just affirmed that people just change as you go. And it was just always normal. And so I just changed as I went, and I never really thought anything of it. I was like, what? This is brand new information. Who would have thought?

Sarah Bessey: I think that that’s part of it is maybe we were kind of, again, going back to that thing of just like, the thing that you were told ends up being not true. And it’s not because anybody maybe necessarily was trying to lie to you. I mean, maybe they were, but usually it’s because we were kind of given this idea of like, well, if you’re right, you never change, and good Christians never change their mind. And if you have the truth, then you never depart from it. And instead of realizing, like, no, I’m sorry, you’re supposed to be paying attention. Faith is not an unmovable certainty. That’s literally not the definition of faith. I think that’s even part of it is just like, normalizing and blessing this experience of change and transformation and growing up and deepening in nuance and hopefully in love.

Shelby: It’s funny that you actually just said that’s, not even the definition of faith, because I think that was what I was hoping to ask you about next is as we’re talking about evolving faith, I think evolving is a term that we’re pretty familiar with. Faith is a term we’re incredibly familiar with, but almost to the point of where we don’t really stop and talk about, okay, what do we mean by that? And what are there so many things that it could mean? And I know that for a lot of us on this journey, it can feel scary or risky to join another community when you feel like, okay, well, but am I going to just grow out of this one? Is this one also going to end up being too restrictive? And if you’re on this journey, you’re like, I don’t know where it’s going to end. I don’t even know if I’m going to be a Christian ten years from now. I don’t know if I’m going to believe the same things I believe ten years from now. And the things that I’m saying are rock solid for me now. Are they going to be in a few years? And so, yeah, just when you talk about evolving faith, what is the faith part of that? Maybe those of you who put on these conferences or what’s kind of the base ground, do you have orthodox principles? Are you like, we’re going to hold to these elements of a creed? Or what is the faith part that is evolving? And is there a limit to it? Or is it kind of anyone’s welcome? I mean, I know anyone’s welcome, but I don’t know, it’s hard to I don’t know if my question is making sense, really.

Sarah Bessey: No, I think I hear you and that’s a question I think a lot of people have had for us over the years. And the answer is, I think like a lot of things, I guess it kind of depends, right, for some people, which maybe isn’t the answer that a lot of folks would have. I know that there were a lot of people who were surprised the first year that we had evolving faith by how Jesus was and I think that surprised them when maybe it necessarily didn’t need to. Because if you knew me and Rachel, you knew that that’s probably what it was going to look like in a lot of ways. And in a lot of ways, both of us, for all of our I’ll speak for myself, but for all of the labels of being a heretic or Godless liberal or whatever else you want to call, I’m still very centered and stubborn about Jesus. And Rachel was similar in her own way and she loved the church and so that came through, I think, in a lot of stuff right, that we did or even in the things that we incorporated into the event. I mean, to this day we still do communion at the end of every gathering that we have and yet there’s not being lines drawn like we haven’t put in things. Like anyone who speaks on stage has to affirm the creeds or has to do this or that. We have had a lot of people on stage who aren’t Christians at all and have very different religious backgrounds or have found themselves just in a place of no faith, who are agnostic, who are atheist, who practice a different form of faith. And I think there’s an expansiveness in a room for that that I really love. I don’t think that there’s a part of me that thinks at this point, after this many years, that somehow I’ve got the corner on truth. That would be a nice illusion. There’s something really beneficial about being in relationship and being in companionship and community with people who do think very differently than you on a lot of different things from scripture to church to politics to whatever else. There are certain things that we’ve kind of put in place to make sure that it does feel like a sanctuary. Like it’s very important for us that everyone who we platform or we put in a position of leadership and evolving faith. For instance, it’s not up for debate on inclusion for LGBTQ plus people. That’s just a baseline for us or whatever else. But yet there’s a lot of room and diversity within the community, within the leadership, within all of those different things. And so my hope is that we’re learning how to practice a generosity and a welcome and a hospitality within community. And the word faith I like for its very. Roominess. I like that there’s a shaggy roominess kind of to it where you get to kind of define that for yourself, even whether you’re someone who’s coming for the first time or you’ve been part of it for five years. Or you’re coming in with different baggage or different story or different background history or even if we are just a place along the way. I mean, even I remember a few years ago, dr. Shaniqua Walker Barnes was teaching at Evolving Faith and she talked about the nature of what we do as being for people on the move. And so by its nature, it’s going to be mean that there’s times when you’re there for a little while and times when you keep moving. There’s times when we’re a good place to stop for some people for a long time and for other folks it’s maybe just for a little while, but along the way you’ve experienced something that looks like community and belonging and hopefully a bit of hope.

Nate: I love that you brought up Rachel Held Evans, who we had on the show years ago and just loved. She was a big part of my story as well with Searching for Sunday and I think one of the main things I loved, and you mentioned it earlier in the interview with your own story as well, which was having these really positive experiences with church. Right. So as much as there was maybe some complicated as you grew and some of the theology or some of the beliefs were like, I’m moving past that one for me. And my story was like, but the people, they were the ones that took care of me that I remember Rachel talking about Casseroles. This is the people that brought us Casseroles. And I think maybe I’m discovering part of what I don’t like about the deconstruction word is sometimes there’s a bit of an attitude around the changing of your faith. And almost like you have to join this club. That kind of looks back on the past and is kind of angry about it and wants to, I don’t know, just turn their back on all those people. And maybe those people feel that even. And I’ve just never wanted I want to have grace for that and be so thankful for that time. And also I need to change some things. I need to move forward. But anyways, I think there’s a question here somewhere. I have something about Rachel. You were personal friends with her and I think her voice is just so missing in our day and age and all these people that are on this journey. And I’m just curious, as a personal friend of her, what do you feel like she’d be talking about today if she was still with us and what are we missing right now from Rachel?

Sarah Bessey: Yeah, I mean, there’s a million ways where her voice is missed and her presence is missed. I wish I knew all the answers for that. I think that that was one of the things that made Rachel such a voice in a generation, was that she was inimitable. And so no matter what she would or wouldn’t do or say, I know that it would have mattered. And yet we find ourselves here in a world without Rachel. And I think that the invitation then is to say if there’s something that we’re missing or there is something that we’re longing for, maybe then that’s the invitation for us to step into that space. Right. And I think that that’s where a lot of folks realized in the aftermath of losing Rachel was how often they relied on her to be brave for them and to say out loud the things that then they would give them a script or would give them something to retweet or give them something to say. And so, yeah, it’s a huge absence. It’s a huge loss for a lot of folks. And so, yeah, I think that there’s something that I think Rachel did really well. A lot of things that she did really well. But one of them was, I think, about that aspect of nuance. You talked about Nate, about the importance of naming harm, of calling out wrongness and naming things what they are, of telling the truth, of learning how to lament well, but then she was also very good about giving us room to complicate things and not revert back to the US versus them fundamentalism that we had tried to leave behind. Right. I mean, the point isn’t to leave behind one form of fundamentalism for another form.

Shelby: Right.

Sarah Bessey: It’s there’s got to be more grace and room and nuance and conversation and belonging than that. And she was always really good at that. It seems like it would be necessary right now, for sure.

Shelby: Yeah. There’s a lot more we could say about her, but it’s an honor to have you on here as well. As someone who was close to her, we wish we could have her back on. I’m curious, in the years of writing books that even if we say Jesus feminist back way back then was now, you’re like, wow, I could have gone a lot further with that. It was still a big deal when it came out. And then as you’ve kept going, things have probably only they continue to be a big deal at the time that you write them. And I’m wondering, as your faith has evolved and you’re very public about it as a writer and a speaker, what kind of pushback have you faced, whether online or personally in community and what’s that journey been like?

Sarah Bessey: I think as awful as you can imagine in a lot of ways, I think that’s one of the things that I’m so grateful for, because my natural personality is not confrontational, tend to avoid conflict wherever I could. I think if I looked, I had the realization a few years ago that if I looked back on my life, almost every major sin or regret that I have had in my life almost always had its roots in wanting to avoid conflict and wanting to avoid difficulty or disagreement. And so the experience of then feeling I don’t know. I mean, I’m charismatic still, so I still like words like called. I still feel called to the work that I do feel like it’s a vocation which is sitting at these intersections of these difficult conversations, whether it’s politics and the world and justice and faith and all these sorts of things. It’s a real quick wake up call that you’re not going to please everybody, there is going to be conflict. You are not going to die from critique. And sometimes that can feel.

Shelby: It is.

Sarah Bessey: Definitely a form of dying to self, maybe if you want to use some really religious language around it. But what is this sense? For me, I think and the temptation that often comes in in these places is those loud voices of people who are like, you’re a heretic, you’re going to hell, you’re a wolf and sheep’s clothing, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s like, well, I know that that’s not true. I know who I am. I know my heart. I know my motivations. And what’s more is I believe that I know God. And so that doesn’t really bother me quite as much anymore, the kind of drive by, you know, sort of things that can happen. The the point where I see sometimes there’s a little bit of a snag is then getting in that defensive posture of being like everyone who critiques me and everyone who disagrees with me is now out to get me and is a hater or is whatever. And then we miss the opportunities and invitations that a thoughtful community and disagreement and conversation and even critique can bring to us. Which, going back to Jesus feminist. Shelby if there were definitely some things in there that I needed thoughtful critique and pushback on. And if I had tried to lump every person who said, hey, but what about this, this, and this into that conglomerate of haters? I would have missed the invitation that I believe God had for me there of being like, oh, no, we’re going to complicate this narrative a little bit. We’re going to expose some of your places where maybe you’ve missed or your privileges or your experiences have made it so you weren’t able to maybe see or identify that or hear some nuance that maybe you missed. And so those are growth opportunities too, at the same time. And so I try to have that posture of curiosity and empathy and openness and even assigning positive intent until I’m proven otherwise, to try to have a more generous interpretation of things while at the same time exercising good boundaries about what is going to take root in my own heart and mind and work. You can’t be writing or leading or speaking into everything for everyone, and neither are you going to be everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s okay, too. But at the same time, that’s where it’s been very helpful to me to be very grounded in real relationships and your real life. I’m wandering a little bit, so I apologize, but it’s almost like this sense of like, if all I’m hearing is how terrible and bad I am. That’s not true. But neither is it true if all I’m hearing is that I’m amazing and so wise or whatever else, because neither one of those exclusively is super good for your soul. And so what is that thing that can be like, well, what is actual reality here? And what is the invitation of being a real person, whether you’re in the Internet or you’re in your neighborhood, that there would be a seamlessness to that, that no matter who encounters you, where they’re finding the same person.

Nate: Yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask about, too. Right. Because we can talk about the public you’re author. We have the podcast there’s like that. I just can’t please everyone. I have to kind of not listen to those emails or those tweets or whatever. But then, on a personal level, too, I think a lot of our listeners out there, they’re dealing with these whether it’s family or friends or people they used to go to church with or still go to church with. And they’re concerned about them. Right? Like the people in those spaces are concerned about this journey they’re going on or are worried or are maybe a little frustrated or whatever it is. And I’m a nine on the enneagram. I want to keep the peace. I don’t want conflict. And so that’s a really difficult space for me. And I know I hear it from our listeners, too. They don’t know often how to navigate those. And I’m curious if you have any wisdom for those on this journey right now, listening that are like I just don’t know how whether it’s a Facebook comment or a conversation someone just scheduled, they want to have coffee with me. Right.

Shelby: We’re on a zoom call for everyone who’s listening, and when Nate just said, have coffee with me, we all just went cringe emoji.

Nate: Yeah. And these are people with the best of intentions, I think. People that, like you said, assigning good intent. Right. And so I think these are people that really care and really, quote, unquote, love us. Right? Yeah. Just any wisdom around how to navigate that or maybe how to think about it differently or something?

Sarah Bessey: That is a good question. And I’ve read a number of books from a few different people over the last number of years, I think especially as we’ve kind of hit this stage of our culture and our public discourse becoming so deeply polarized. And I think that there is something really there that I’ve learned along the way from some folks and teachers and therapists. There’s so many things that people can look at to find good guides and resources who know much more about this than I do. But from a personal experience, it’s complicated and it’s hard and I don’t know that there’s a hack to get out of that. I don’t know that there is a magic conversation that happens that heals everything. I think that it oftentimes if it’s going to work it often has to be from a perspective mutuality that you’re both invested in making it work. If it’s the dynamic which it usually is of one person being in fear and seeking to control and wanting to kind of shut down or get you in line, it just doesn’t usually end well. And I think knowing that you can try everything and do everything and you can be as generous as possible and that still might be the end result. There still might be the end result that you have to draw a boundary or you have to release certain friendships or relationships from a center space in your life to a season of your life. Those are difficult things, I think especially when you are speaking from experience where it costs you friendship and community belonging. That is the currency that often people will use to keep you in line, right, is that sense of belonging. We know how swift the punishment is when you step out of line. And so to that extent, I think that’s why it’s so important to be developing those muscles of community and belonging and friendship and acceptance and therapy like all those different types of things that will help you be able to navigate that. But there’s not really a get out of discomfort free card on any of it. There’s going to be awkward coffee dates. There’s going to be hard conversations. There’s going to be sad nights when you realize that you’ve grown really far apart from the person who used to be your primary person and there are ways to find each other again. It requires, I think, both people being in that posture of love and acceptance and curiosity and empathy with each other. I know I’ve definitely experienced that in my own life and I am grateful for it. I think, too, there’s even the understanding that we have to own our crap. Because when you very first oftentimes cross that threshold, you enter into it with this sense of righteous indignation and anger. Going back to even your deconstruction metaphor, Nate, there can be this sense of chaos and drywall flying and people get caught in the residual damage. That’s part of the flailing sometimes. And so learning how to own our own part in that and own where maybe we hurt people inadvertently or inadvertently learning how to forgive and be forgiven those are all things that will serve us, I think, well as we go along. But I don’t know that there is a way around it other than through it, and it sucks. I’m sorry.

Shelby: But I think that going through it, rather than the around it, I think, ties into even what you just mentioned about how polarizing our culture has been has become in the last, I think a lot of people would say since 2016, and then heightened by COVID and just. It is such a different world of what feels like so quickly in the last decade. And I think that it makes it very easy to try to just avoid all these conversations because it’s easy to just kind of join another camp, kind of like you mentioned earlier, of moving from one type of fundamentalism to another. So the process that you were just mentioning, of actually going through it, having the hard conversations, having the awkward coffee dates, I think that’s the skill that our culture is losing is really important on both people’s sides. Obviously, we completely affirm that there are boundaries that people listening. Like, we’re not saying you need to go have every coffee date that you’re invited on. There’s going to be people who just aren’t safe to have those conversations with.

Sarah Bessey: I think, too, you realize that there comes a certain point where you spending all of your time and your energy and your emotional labor to convince somebody of something they are committed to. Not understanding is just not going to be the best use of your time and your energy and your emotional labor. And so I think even sometimes maybe we’ve missed, and maybe this is a hang on from some of that evangelical evangelism dynamics that we’ve been given, like, well, if you just have the right argument, and if you just have the right answer, you’ll convince people of stuff. That is not what we’re doing here. And so I think that as well, especially if you’re in a place of hurt or you’re in a place of grief or you’re in a place of dealing with a lot of anger. And I think for a lot of people coming out of some of these spaces, there has oftentimes the narratives of abuse and recovery that have to take place, certainly spiritual. You know what, you are allowed to protect yourself. You are allowed to also just kind of curl up and take a minute. And you don’t have not every battle and every conversation is for right this very second and right this very moment. I think, especially if you feel a bit wobbly, it’s good to kind of curl up somewhere where you feel healthy, where you have a sense of sanctuary, where you have a sense of belonging and get your feet under you. That’s okay.

Nate: I remember saying something similar in some of those early conversations. This is seven, eight, nine years ago, where someone wanted to have the coffee or wanted to, hey, can we chat after a hangout session? And you’re like, okay, that pit of the stomach and I remember trying for a while, right, because just recently, coming out of that world of everything’s sort of a debate or I grew up very Calvinistic reformed, so it was very doctrinal, right? You believe this and you’re set of tool up and all. And so I got to a point where realizing those tools are not needed as much in this way forward for me and having to trying to enter into that a little bit and trying to do the book studies or whatever the person wanted to do. But also say I think some of this is you won’t know until you have experienced what I’ve experienced. And that becoming a helpful thing for me to share is like, I can only share so much. I can only tell you so much. I think we’ve just had a bit of a different experience at this point and I can’t explain all of that for you. I can do my best to try to share how this has felt because you’re a friend and I want to do that, but I can’t give you this whole journey that I’ve been on. Yeah. And that became some sort of a helpful thing for me to say, I guess, to people.

Shelby: But it’s not usually satisfying to the person listening. No, especially because people coming from I don’t say this as a look at them because that was me, I was that person who hearing someone talk about their feelings, that just wasn’t really valid. I was like, well, but this is what’s true and this is what the Bible says. So if that’s how you felt about God, well, then that’s too bad, kind of. I mean, that would be the mentality that I would have grown up in. So I can often hear when I’m relating that journey to someone else. I can hear how this doesn’t sound satisfying to them and this sounds wishy washy and sounds like I’m just making up my own truth. And I try to acknowledge that I can imagine what they’re probably thinking. And then I think for me, it is a little different. And I don’t know, maybe this is not healthy, but maybe I just love having the answers so much. I mean, I went and did a master’s in Biblical studies and so I feel like a lot of those conversations now, I feel like I can kind of come to those with a bit of there actually are different answers than the ones that we grew up with. And yeah, I can’t necessarily point for point come, but I can come with a very different starting basis. And if we have a different starting basis for just what the Bible is, what it was ever meant to be, how it was written, the fact that it’s not an it, it’s a collection and written by all men and women. We’ve talked about it so much on this podcast. But if we can start with a different premise then that just changes the whole conversation. We don’t have to be on the defense all the time. And that’s part of why we do this podcast is because obviously the average person doesn’t have all those tools, especially if you’re anything like us who probably spent 20 years or more learning all the points that you were supposed to learn in the evangelical tradition. You got all the apologetics arguments down, you got all the doctrine, and then now within months or a couple of years, you’re thrown into a completely like, you know, that, okay, I don’t think I fit there anymore. But of course it’s going to take you another how long to feel like, okay, not only do I feel comfortable where I am, but I can actually go out and defend that to someone. You shouldn’t be expected to be able to defend a position that you’re only just discovering and yet that is what often is expected and if you can’t defend it then it’s like, see, you’re doing something wrong here. At least I think I know that’s what Nate and I have experienced too is feeling and we’ve heard from listeners that it can feel very invalidating and very scary to realize. I can’t combat the apologetics arguments that my friends and family are throwing at me. And so just we are constantly trying to affirm like you don’t have to have those responses. And as backwards as it sounds from the mindsets we had growing up, you can just stop and like you were saying, curl up in a place that feels safe, acknowledge how you feel about yourself, about God, about the Bible, about church and that those feelings actually matter. And I don’t know if I can prove that with a Bible verse, but I think if you can start to just trust that, trust that your feelings are one of the accurate indicators of life, not the only one, but one, then that can point you in a healthy direction.

Sarah Bessey: I think that’s part of what you’re relearning is how to dismantle that idol of certainty, to learn to become a little more comfortable with mystery and with nuance, with saying, I don’t know, which I think for a lot of us growing up, in particular subsegments of evangelicalism, it was like, I don’t know. Might as well be like a swear word, right? And so this notion of patience, of time, the thing too that I have found that doesn’t surprise me anymore, but did it first was how often the people who had the biggest and strongest reactions against whatever I was saying or exploring circled back around in less time than I would have thought to say. Can you tell me more about that? Because now I find that I’m there. And it is when you are a non anxious, non judgmental presence. If you can be, we can always be. But oftentimes you become their safest person to come to when the prayer didn’t get answered or the divorce papers arrived or the diagnosis rolled in and prayer didn’t fix it, or whatever else has happened. They know that you’re someone who has walked that road or has traveled that road. And so I’ve stopped being surprised, but it is always something I kind of have in the back of my head sometimes now. And I have a lot of those conversations, or I encounter those difficult kind of moments of like, well, if this, then that, and then we’re done. It’s like, well, okay, that’s okay, and the door will stay open on my side, and you let me know when you want to walk through. And so that doesn’t always happen, but I’d be surprised by the regularity with which it does at times.

Nate: Yeah. The amount of people that reached out when I first started the show, with the concerned emails and all that kind, I mean, they were there, right? But then over the years, there have been some people from a Bible college or a community group or something. I’m like you’re a camper.

Sarah Bessey: Look at us.

Shelby: Yeah, I remember when I was first I mean, the deconstruction started before COVID but then it kind of just happened to be that during COVID was not only the most alone in my faith, but then very alone, literally. But we had this core group of, like, five friends, and I was just so scared to be honest with them about where I was at because I just felt like I was going to eliminate myself from this group. And it just was amazing to see how their love for me that was never a question. And then, sure, slowly, every single one of them has come on this journey, which was actually what I was most afraid of in the beginning, was someone following me on this journey that I didn’t know where it was going. And at that point, I felt like I was just falling into this abyss, and I was like, I don’t want to take anyone with me, but now.

Sarah Bessey: I feel so come on in. The water is fine.

Shelby: Exactly.

Sarah Bessey: I think that’s part of the fun, maybe, of when you kind of cross that threshold of the wilderness and all of a sudden and you feel so profoundly alone and you’ve had all your belongings stripped away from you is the realization there’s a lot of weirdos and misfits out here. Right. There’s more of us than you could have ever imagined. And there’s a lot more people who are questioning, who are exploring, who are even playing a little bit with stuff. And so it’s not as scary when you realize you’re not as alone as you thought, maybe.

Shelby: And even that historically, we’re not alone. From the beginning of Christianity, there has not been one path. There has not been one trajectory.

Sarah Bessey: It’s super cute that we thought for like, 20 years there was. It’s almost adorable.

Shelby: How about that?

Sarah Bessey: Our denomination. Our version finally was the one that cracked the code.

Shelby: Yeah. I think I’ve said this probably on the podcast before, but I can still vividly remember. I don’t know exactly how old I was, probably 16 or 17 or something, and standing in the kitchen in my family’s home, washing dishes. I just remember standing there looking out the little kitchen window over the sink, thinking just so gratefully about, like, I am so lucky that I was born into exactly the right belief system. I got it all just given to me. Right. And I just remember now, I’m like, oh, poor, sweet Shelby. Just was very naive, but at least I was aware of, like, that’s crazy. And I just thought I was crazy lucky, but at least it was a little crazy, right?

Nate: Yeah. And there’s a lot of people listening right now that are we are all coming from this place down the road a bit, right? Like, we can look back and we can reflect, and we’re like, yeah, we’re comfortable with this. There’s some that are just entering I get these emails all the time, right. People that are just entering this journey and their head is spinning, and they’re like, I don’t know what way is up, what way is down? And maybe you start believing some of the things people are saying about you. Like, you’re just going for whatever feels good, right. Like truths out the window, I guess. And it’s whatever you think. And what about if you change tomorrow and you feel all these things? People start saying you just want to sleep around. Exactly. Right.

Shelby: I hate that one, but, I mean, it gets used and people feel that way about themselves, like, trying to be cool.

Sarah Bessey: You’re dismantling your whole life because you want to sin.

Nate: Yeah, exactly. Anyways, we’ve shared a lot on that one article that was written on what is it? Gospel Coalition. Yeah. Anyway, those, like, five reasons of street credential.

Sarah Bessey: All of them were just absolutely a huge benefit.

Nate: Yeah.

Shelby: It’s always beneficial to just lose your entire community and everything.

Sarah Bessey: Super efficient, profitable, great.

Shelby: Feels good.

Nate: But to those people that are kind of in that just first weeks. First months. Yeah. What advice would you give to them? What wisdom do you have for them?

Sarah Bessey: That’s a good question. Let me think for a second. When I look back on what served me best during, I think especially some of the scariest transitions, what I needed to hear or what helped me to hear was first to be constantly affirmed and reminded and grounded in the love of God and however that translates for you in that moment. For some people, maybe it’s still through Scripture. For other people, maybe it’s through other experiences or other relationships, but it meant a lot to me. I remember turning back to a lot of the psalms in Isaiah during that time and really feeling like even the line, like, even. If I make my bed in hell, you’re there that there’s nowhere that I can outrun your presence. Nowhere where you aren’t already. And the amount of comfort that that gave me and I remember my dad even sitting down with me at one point and saying, like, if you are seeking God, I have confidence in that. Even if it leads you on a different path in a direction than I’ve had. And that kind of that’s an amazing.

Shelby: Thing to hear from a parent.

Sarah Bessey: Oh, I’m never not incredibly grateful for both my mum and my dad have both kept pace with me and with my sister and with our partners as we have. They’ve been on their own journey, right? They’ve been on their own journey of an evolving faith. But that sense of being very rooted and grounded in the belonging that I had and the love of God, no matter what that meant or how that looked, even as that changed, was very important to me. And then the other thing that really did benefit me and serve me and is a gift that I try to give other people now is to not be afraid for them. I think oftentimes that’s what we hear from people around us is that they’re afraid. They’re afraid that we’ll go to hell. We’re afraid that we’re going to lose the life that we’ve built. They’re afraid for us and of us. They’re afraid they’re going to lose us. And so oftentimes we get kind of almost infected, like we’re already scared because we know what is happening, we know what is at stake here. And then at the same time, you’ve now got this chorus of people who are like a Greek tragedy. Of all the ways that you can go wrong and this can go badly. And so finding those people around you who can normalize what you’re experiencing, who can bless and give you permission finding those non anxious, non afraid things that are confident in the love and the welcome and the hospitality and goodness of God those things are helpful. To know that we’re loved, to know that you don’t have to be afraid. I think those two things were probably served me really well at that threshold and so maybe that would be the thing I would want to say, is just you don’t need to be afraid and you are so loved. No matter where you’re going or what you’re doing or where this ends or doesn’t end, those are the things that I think you can hang on to as you begin.

Shelby: That I think resonates for me too. I think that the initial kind of summer where I was starting to have the most these really serious deconstruction I mean, I’ll I’ll call them struggles because at that point it was a struggle. Now I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle, but then it was it piggybacked off of probably some of the most intimate spiritual experiences I’d ever had and so that was, in one sense, felt almost like some kind of betrayal. But on the other hand, I think it also laid a foundation of I just knew if this God is real at all, then I think I have to hold on to that. I’m the one sheep out of the 99, and I can’t go too far if I’m doing this out of the genuineness of my heart and out of what feels like trying to understand, even if I’m not everyone, it feels wrong to judge someone by like, are you doing this genuinely? Or whatever. But if you’re a human being who we say was created by a loving God, father, mother, whatever, we want to say that that being is, then how could you really do anything that’s too far for that parent to not love you anymore? I mean, that’s what a parent is should be. So, yeah, I think that foundation of love is really important because it gives you the ability to try things that you’re afraid of and to maybe fail and to maybe go, oh, I was wrong, and yet it’s okay, you can be wrong, and you’re not going to be condemned.

Sarah Bessey: Yeah, I think that maybe that’s some of the even deconstruction work you do first is realizing that God’s like this punitive banker holding some sort of star chart in the sky over you for, like, there’s a lot more roominess and a lot more goodness.

Shelby: For most people, it comes down to changing the view of hell. Like, you kind of have to change your view on that before you can take a journey that’s not based in fear, which makes sense. I mean, how could it be otherwise? We’ve talked about it a ton on the show. But that really is the rub, too, between those conversations, those coffee shop conversations and the Facebook comments, is when you’re functioning on different levels regarding a potential eternal damnation, then, yeah, that’s a hard one to get past, and it’s hard to have mutual openness or kind of what you were saying. It’s hard for someone to be okay with your journey if that’s what they’re afraid of, which makes sense. They shouldn’t be okay with that if that’s what they believe could happen.

Nate: Yeah. And I think what can be hard is that community piece that you brought up, right? Like, finding those people that are just alongside you and like, yes, like, keep going. Like, there’s love here, no matter what, no matter where you end up. And I know that’s what you’re trying to do with evolving faith. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Facebook group and the Zoom calls that we do. And so even if and I tell this to the people that email all the time, and they’re like, do you know of a community in some city in Kansas? I’m like, I don’t, but there are people around. I know there are people around in that city in Kansas. It’s just they’re not always raising their hand in the back pew. And it’s maybe that person that I haven’t seen that person at church in a while. So there are those people that physically there around you and they may be hard to find, but there’s also these virtual communities in this world that we live in. There’s the evolving faith community. There’s almost reticle. There’s many others too, as you start looking. So if you’re just starting on that journey, I’d encourage you to try some of these out and see if you’re able to find even that online pen pal person that you can chat with. To just feel we say this a lot, but to feel less alone and to feel less crazy, because it’s really powerful when you have that feeling of like, oh, I remember this when we started the show, it’s like we just flicked the mics on, thought ten people were going to listen. And then you realize, oh, there’s, like, thousands and thousands of people that are having the same experience that I’m having different nuances and that kind of thing, but the same experience of some sort of a change, some sort of a loss of something I used to believe and not knowing what comes next. That’s a very common, very common experience. So you are not alone and you are not crazy. And I hope that we can help connect you with others on this same.

Shelby: Journey and you’re on the brink of something really beautiful and free, for sure, from some people who’ve been there for a while. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for being on this call and for your words of encouragement. I want to encourage anyone to pick up one of Sarah’s books. Just the way that you write I was reminded, as I was recently reading through miracles and other reasonable things is just I mean, it does remind me also of Rachel’s style of just it’s comforting. It feels like you’re talking to a friend, and it’s full of humor and stories and also just weaving in so much biblical imagery that I think a lot of times when people who have maybe stepped back from church and stepped back from Bible studies often feel like, this doesn’t belong to me anymore. And the way that you just weave Jesus and those stories into life and truths that you maybe are only just becoming comfortable to us, it’s really beautiful. And so I hope you guys, anyone can pick up one of her books somewhere, but it’s been wonderful to hear from you and thank you for joining us.

Sarah Bessey: Thank you for having me. It’s been an honor. I appreciate it.

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