How to be a pastor in exile

Ontario group is a community for faith-seekers on the margins

Dec 28, 2015 by and

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Jessica Reesor Rempel and Chris Brnjas call themselves “Pastors in Exile.” They aren’t officially pastors, but then, their congregation isn’t officially a church.

Caleb Redekop, left, Pastors in Exile board member; and co-founders/pastors Chris Brnjas and Jessica Reesor Rempel cut a pie at PiE’s launch party. — Steven Reesor Rempel

Caleb Redekop, left, Pastors in Exile board member; and co-founders/pastors Chris Brnjas and Jessica Reesor Rempel cut a pie at PiE’s launch party. — Steven Reesor Rempel

They are the part-time leaders of a ministry network — “a movement,” Reesor Rempel says — in the Waterloo-Kitchener area of Ontario.

They want to encourage and strengthen church involvement, especially among those who’ve become disillusioned with the church.

“Sometimes we ask a young adult, ‘What do you need [in order] to stay here [in your congregation]?’ ” Reesor Rempel said. “We love the church.”

Both she and Brnjas have the title of co-founder/pastor of Pastors in Exile — PiE for short — with the goal of reaching people on the margins of church.

While young adults make up the bulk of the group, those participating in PiE events have ranged in age from high school students to the 80s.

“When we started, we were really focused on 21- to 30-year-olds — people just graduating from college and university and just starting out,” Reesor Rempel said. She and Brnjas then realized they wanted to reach high school students as well.

“It’s important to connect with youth in the later years of high school, because it’s important help them have a smooth transition,” she said, adding that they reach out to a local Mennonite high school.

What exiled pastors do

Most PiE activities are what one might expect from a group “in exile” — decentralized, loosely networked happenings with transient attendance.

A feminist Bible study on the book of Ruth attracted 30 women over 12 weeks, although not every woman attended each meeting.

“Some people haven’t opened a Bible in 10 years, and some people have never opened a Bible, so this was an entry point for them,” Reesor Rempel said.

Although “a big chunk” of the attendees were 21-year-olds, she said, the study brought together women ages 18 to 85.

“That was really rich — the older women got to share their life experiences,” she said.

Caitie Walker, a third-year environment and resource studies student at the University of Waterloo, attended the Bible study and meets with Reesor Rempel for pastoral care.

Walker said she “loved the feminist Bible study, to see a totally different aspect that I never would have heard before. . . . We started having a prayer that mentioned God as female. A lot of time God is portrayed as a male with more masculine attribution. It was interesting to hear in prayers about God’s feminine, nurturing side.”

Pastors in Exile friends David Alton and Will Turman catch up at PiE’s launch party. — Steven Reesor Rempel

Pastors in Exile friends David Alton and Will Turman catch up at PiE’s launch party. — Steven Reesor Rempel

The group is planning a “winter camp for grown-ups” in March at Silver Lake Mennonite Camp in Ontario — “a space to bring young adults together,” Reesor Rempel said.

The group shares “preaching” though blog posts on the PiE website. Reesor Rempel and Brnjas also have one-on-one meetings with people looking for pastoral care.

“I haven’t always felt like I like the classic church setting, so it’s been nice to get some spiritual care outside of that,” Walker said. “Jessie [Reesor Rempel] has been a really great friend to me.”

‘Raw and authentic’

Walker described the connection she felt as “a lot more raw and authentic” than her experiences in a traditional church setting, where she felt like she couldn’t talk about her struggles.

“In my church growing up, I felt like I couldn’t be really depressed; it felt like I couldn’t say anything like that, because it was bad,” she said. “If I couldn’t be real in the church, why should I be in the church? So I left to find it on my own terms. . . . When I talk to Chris and Jessie, I can say ‘I’ve been having a really bad day,’ and all my problems are validated.”

David Alton of Baden, Ont., met with Reesor Rempel and Brnjas to bounce around ideas for his work as spiritual life director this summer at Fraser Lake Camp in Ontario. He calls them his pastoral support team.

“I appreciate their willingness to create space for me explore ideas, and their support,” Alton said. “A lot of people in the Waterloo region are at the fringe of the Mennonite church, and PiE is a group that’s trying to occupy that space.”

Alton has organized “trust walks,” taking a group to wander together in areas or situations that might be unfamiliar (in urban areas, at night, blindfolded).

“The goal of it is to explore the concept of trust,” Alton said. “Walking is almost a meditative practice; it’s a way to be a presence in the world.”

Not anti-church

Though Reesor Rempel and Brnjas see themselves as pastors outside of church walls, PiE is not meant to oppose or replace the traditional church.

“We are not starting a church,” Reesor Rempel said. “Our dream is not to draw people out of church.”

The group’s website offers this explanation: “We feel that it is church that is in exile, and we want to be pastors in that exile space.” Instead of seeing church as “just a specific community in a specific place at a specific time,” PiE’s vision of the church is “a network of people that constantly evolves and changes; a network of people who are exploring what it means to love God and love their neighbours in unique, creative and powerful ways.”

Reesor Rempel finds young adults are interested in theology and how it affects actions.

“A lot of people are concerned with hypocrisy in the church,” Reesor Rempel said. “They hear messages like ‘love your neighbor,’ but then they don’t always see that applied. They [church leaders] say ‘love your neighbor,’ but are not accepting of LGBTQ people. They say ‘care for the environment,’ but then they use Styrofoam cups. How do you align your actions and your beliefs?”

She said young adults feel shut out of church if their viewpoints are different.

“Some feel like the church doesn’t want them,” she said. “Their faith is changing; they don’t have the same traditional faith they grew up with. They think, ‘If I don’t agree with every single tenet of the Mennonite faith, they won’t want me here.’ ”

Reesor Rempel hears a hunger for Bible study.

“They want to understand the Bible in a way that impacts life,” she said. “People also don’t want to be just lectured about the Bible; they want the freedom to challenge the way it’s traditionally been applied.”

While PiE may reach out to those who feel some antipathy toward the church, the organizers are grateful for the support they receive from congregations and church institutions.

Reesor Rempel and Brnjas are both part of congregations in the region, and they received a grant from Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. PiE has office space in the Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College.

“We kind of have a foot inside and a foot outside,” Reesor Rempel said. “We know, love and are part of the institutional church, but we can also step outside.”

Walker agreed.

“I don’t think there should be a divide between the church and what PiE is doing,” she said. “They’re filing this void, but I think they would love it if they weren’t needed any more.”

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