Ipswich, Mass., pastor writes book about following a calling beyond the church walls.
When the pastor has no church, do people still hear his message?
In Ipswich resident Doug Brendel’s case, more have heard his message outside the physical confines of a church than in.
In his recently published book “Why I Quit the Church: A Ministry Memoir,” Brendel chronicles his journey through a variety of churches to the streets working with the homeless in this country and in Belarus.
Often with self-deprecating humor and candid revelation and discussion of his own shortcomings, including ego and ambition, Brendel takes the reader from a 1,000-member Phoenix, Ariz., church where he served as the teaching pastor, to a small church, then on to a house church and, finally, to a street ministry.
“Jesus taught that the two most important things were to love God and love people, and the eternal dilemma of the church is how to do that,” he said.
Brendel found he fell short in loving people and being sensitive to their needs, and that kept him from feeling fulfilled in his calling.
Brendel did not aspire to be the senior pastor who had the heavy administrative duties. He was content to be in charge of the teaching ministry, interpreting the lessons of the Bible to the congregants. Drama ministry was one of the techniques he employed.
With a background in acting, he directed elaborate productions that included intense rehearsals, and all the accoutrements of the stage play, lighting, sets, sound. “I feel you should work in the area of your giftedness rather than follow the traditional roles within the church,” he said.
“I felt if you did ‘awesome’ church, get people in the door, that was the best place to help them, But I didn't really see a lot of life-change happening as a result,” he said.
Brendel did at one point relocate with his wife and three children from Arizona to Andover, to accept a senior pastor position at a small church. He felt he was ready to be the man in charge. “It was a disaster,” he said, adding he knows now he still fell short in loving people.
The family returned to Arizona, but knew that someday they wanted to return to New England, specifically to Ipswich. He and his wife, Kristina Brendel, fell in love with Ipswich while living in Andover. She now owns the Time & Tide Gallery in town.
Brendel dates the shift in his attitude toward church to a Christmas Eve in Scottsdale, Ariz., when his senior pastor accepted a plea to help serve breakfast to the area’s homeless. He was resistant to the idea, having no experience dealing with the homeless and “loving the unlovely,” which he now reflects was the missing piece in his ministry.
“I had never encountered a homeless person in my life. They must be dangerous. I was a skinny nerd with a paunch. I had suburbia written all over me,” he recalled.
But it was working with the homeless where he found he could effect life changes by giving love and support.
“Even today, years later, I can’t explain what happened to me that day. I moved among these people, and my heart moved in with them. This lovely mixed bag of miscreants and sad sacks. It felt like a family reunion,” he said.
And so he left the physical church and became a street minister.
In his book he writes that he wished he had stood before his congregation and said, “Welcome to the least important hour of your week,” explaining that church was preparation for “being Jesus” the other six days and 23 hours. “Worship service is just a time-out to re-charge for the real work the rest of the week, being Jesus outside the church walls,” he said.
With almost two dozen books to his credit, Brendel now works as a consultant to churches, lectures, and occasionally acts, but he and his wife travel to Belarus a few times each year where he continues to minister to the homeless. Kristina, a professional photographer, made the first foray into Belarus to photo-document the aftermath of Chernobyl. He already has his next book in the works about their experiences there.
Sunday in Ipswich finds Brendel sampling local churches. He has visited many in the area. “I love churches, the way they look, the way they smell,” he said. “I am still on this journey,” he said, “but I am skeptical about setting up some destination.”