How Raleigh’s John Pavlovitz Went from Fired Megachurch Pastor to Rising Star of the Religious Left | News Feature | Indy Week
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How Raleigh’s John Pavlovitz Went from Fired Megachurch Pastor to Rising Star of the Religious Left 

John Pavlovitz

Photo by Caitlin Penna

John Pavlovitz

Little by little, John Pavlovitz is becoming a familiar name among progressives, particularly progressive Christians. And he has Donald Trump to thank for it.

Pavlovitz, forty-eight, is a Wake Forest resident, minister at North Raleigh Community Church, and father of two young kids. He's also the writer behind Stuff that Needs to be Said, a blog that calls out hypocrisy in plain language, with the president and his ardent followers within the religious right earning particular scorn.

His style—compassion paired with a no-bullshit, emperor-wears-no-clothes attitude, all informed by an inclusive brand of Christianity—has endeared him to millions of readers. This year alone, twenty-three million people have viewed his blog, and he has over sixty thousand Twitter followers. His words have been featured in Slate, Cosmopolitan, and Quartz.

But as his recently released book, A Bigger Table, explains, finding that voice was the result of a years-long process of soul searching. A former megachurch pastor, Pavlovitz didn't fully arrive at his new, progressive mind-set until a few years ago.

"It was a gradual deconstruction of my faith," he says. "You look at one isolated area of the Bible, for example, then realize, Well, if that doesn't mean what I was taught it meant, what other areas of my spiritual journey was I taking for granted? So you start digging into it, and you find yourself exploring all areas of your belief system."

Born in Syracuse to a middle-class Italian family, Pavlovitz grew up Catholic. By his own description, his was a mainstream suburban childhood, and he was raised with a sense of "in groups" and "out groups"—those who were blessed by the Almighty, and those who were not. People of color, gay people, poor people, addicts, atheists—"All were to be avoided or feared, or at least approached with great skepticism," he remembers.

Then he went to college, at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he'd arrived with a scholarship to study graphic design.

"It's difficult to comprehend how my head didn't simply explode upon arrival," he writes in A Bigger Table. With no idea of what to expect, he was suddenly exposed to a wide-ranging, colorful diversity beyond anything he could have imagined: artists, dancers, musicians, gay, straight—people he came to know and care about.

Then his brother came out as gay. Pavlovitz had grown up with a vague discomfort about gay people, yet his first reaction at hearing the news about his brother was relief. He finally understood why his sibling had been so depressed, and he was happy that his parents embraced his brother's identity.

Those two events were pivotal, says Pavlovitz: they opened his mind about who was worthy of compassion and love.

Around the same time, he was finding his way back to Christianity, thanks to his impending marriage. Late in the game, he and his fiancée realized they wanted to have a church wedding, and the only institution that welcomed them was a small Methodist church in suburban Pennsylvania. They liked its coziness, so the Pavlovitzes continued there as congregants after they were married. One day, a church leader asked if he would serve as the church's youth pastor. The fit was perfect. He had found his calling.

After a stint in seminary and more time at the Pennsylvania church, the couple moved to Charlotte, where Pavlovitz got a job as youth pastor at a megachurch, the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church; he spent nearly a decade there. To be an integral member of a church family, Pavlovitz found, was to be part of something greater than oneself, something warm and welcoming. The sense of belonging was powerful.

But it was also, he learned, stifling. The pressure to conform, to agree with derisive comments about Democrats or the "gay agenda," to prioritize boosting attendance over addressing genuine laspes in faith, was intense, he says. Instead of being a balm for congregants' dark nights of the soul, church felt like an event where participants presented highly edited versions of themselves. And that old sense of in-groups and out-groups was still there, an invisble line between a certain kind of Christian and everyone else.

Was everyone struggling with doubt? Pavlovitz didn't know, but he sure was. Given his experiences in Philadelphia and in his own family, he'd accepted that gay people were his equals in dignity and worth. What else that the church was promoting was untrue—about Muslims, or women, or poor people?

It was a terrifying realization. At that point, Pavlovitz was a respected pastor, someone who was supposed to have all the answers.

"There's a conspiracy of silence in churches," he explains. The ministers are seen as being so certain of their beliefs that their congregation doesn't feel comfortable coming to them with doubts. Meanwhile, clergymen (and they're usually men) aren't able to confess the questions they themselves have. Were they really acting like Jesus would? That was the big question. Wasn't the goal to love everyone, unreservedly?

But instead of speaking his doubts, Pavlovitz hid his misgivings and got a job at a Raleigh megachurch. (He asked that the INDY not give the church's name.)

And then, one day in 2013, he was fired.

"You don't fit here. You've never fit here," the head pastor told him.

In fact, Pavlovitz says, he did fit—very well—when he ministered to young people and families looking for comfort and connection. But he couldn't find a place for himself in the fabric of a church that, like many in the U.S., had become increasingly corporate. It was skilled at creating "really well-produced, age-specific Sunday experiences" and "great faith-based entertainment," Pavlovitz says, but it never attempted to pull together people from all corners of humanity for the common purpose of glorifying God.

And that, Pavlovitz realized, was what his soul was yearning for.

Being fired was a shock at first. But within twenty-four hours, he came to view it as a blessing, one that would allow him to finally speak his mind. He'd already begun the blog by then, but it had mostly been reserved for the church community. Now he began to write more freely.

In 2014, his writing project went viral. It started with a personal post in the form of a letter to his kids. "If I Have Gay Children" outlined the ways he would continue to love and support his son and daughter if they came out—that he would not keep their sexual orientation a secret and not quietly hope that they would eventually change. Almost overnight, millions of people read it.

"One day you're unemployed; the next day CNN calls," Pavlovitz says. The shift was incredible. Suddenly he had an audience, and he was going to use it.

In 2016, another of his posts caught the internet's eye. "To Brock Turner's Father, from Another Father" addressed the dad of the Stanford University swimming star who'd been accused of rape; the father had asked the judge for leniency.

"Brock is not the victim here. His victim is the victim," the post begins, then systematically knocks down the father's excuses for his son's actions.

But the site's greatest one-day readership occurred on November 9, 2016, the day after Trump's election.

"That day, a lot of people were searching on Google, and they found me," he says. It helped that pop singer Katy Perry shared his post, "This Is Why We Grieve Today," on Twitter. The essay explained to a hypothetical clueless reader why Trump's election felt so profoundly painful to many Americans. It resonated.

Many of the readers who found him that day have stayed. Pavlovitz says his readers come from all over the political and religious spectrum—and that's apparent in the dozens or sometimes hundreds of comments on his posts.

"But I think we all have the same pull toward protecting humanity," he says. "If you're a person who believes in equality that transcends gender or faith traditions, you'll find something that appeals to you."

Pavlovitz has always featured Christianity-specific posts, like "Why You May Want to Try Church Again" or "With the Time You Have Left Here." But most of his writings focus on current events: gun control, kneeling NFL players, sexual harassment and assault, and, in the last week, Roy Moore.

Unabashedly liberal, Pavlovitz has come a long way from his roots as an acquiescent megachurch pastor. One could imagine posts like "Rescuing Jesus from American Evangelicals" or "In Gun We Trust: God Bless the NRA" being written to some of his conservative former congregants.

But Trump's election in particular has provided him with fuel; he's covered immigration, white supremacy, and health care, and often directly addresses Trump supporters in posts like "If You Voted for Trump, You Owe My Children an Apology." He is unremitting in his derision for voters who he believes must take responsibility for the chaos and violence that's occurred since the election.

Pavlovitz says his comfort with questioning established dogma makes him a rarity in mainstream Christianity and has turned him into something of a beacon for others with doubts—a surprisingly large group of people.

"People say to me, 'I've been in the church my whole life, but you're finally giving me permission to wrestle with things,'" he says. "Right now, there's a voice of Christianity that seems loud because it has the White House behind it. But there's a large population in America that thinks, This is nothing like the faith I entered into."

Some simply know in their gut, he says, that a religion of in-groups and out-groups isn't what Jesus was preaching.

"I believe he's absolutely on to something," says Molly Worthen, a UNC history professor who focuses on religion and ideology. "There are changes in the way younger evangelicals think about things like sexuality and gender roles. But they're also exhausted by the aggressive confrontational style and old Moral Majority approach to politics."

Indeed, a number of polls have shown a decline in Christian beliefs among young Americans over the past decade.

Pavlovitz—now a youth minister at North Raleigh Community Church, a congregation that welcomes people who are questioning the Christianity they grew up with—is part of a movement of progressive Christians, people like North Carolina's Reverend William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, whose agendas have become more pointed as a result of Trump's presidency. But the movement has been slow to coalesce in recent years, Pavlovitz acknowledges. He thinks it's partly because liberal Christians view political power with disdain; after all, their Jesus was a homeless preacher, an underdog who was executed for butting up against an established government.

But Nancy Petty, pastor of Raleigh's liberal Pullen Baptist Church, thinks progressives often struggle with how to articulate their faith, since much of the vocabulary of Christianity has been co-opted by the far right. But that hasn't been the case with Pavlovitz, she says.

"One of the things with John is he's articulating the message of progressives," she says. "He's found his own language."

Pavlovitz isn't a radical. The topics he emphasizes, like gay rights and women's rights, were resolved by liberal Christians years ago. And unlike Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove, he doesn't frequently talk about the tougher, more structural issues of poverty and racism that could require a radical reordering of society to remedy.

But that's probably part of why Pavlovitz is so popular. His is a manageable liberalism, one that makes logical sense but isn't too taxing. And yet, at a time when America seems to have taken a giant step backward in how it views minorities and other vulnerable populations, he might be exactly what the country—and the church—needs.


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