From the Trenches with Kevin Rains

You know how there are people who talk about a new kind of Christianity, and then there are people who actually are a new kind of Christian? Or how some people write books about postmodern faith and some people live it? (Not that they are always mutually exclusive, but there is kind of a trend there.) Kevin Rains is one of the latter – a top notch practitioner of neo-monasticism and part of the first wave of folks to explore alternative pastoring in the late nineties and early 2000’s. Kevin and his family live with other families, singlets, and pilgrims in an old vicarage and the neighboring re-built convent house. Together, the community acts as caretakers to a crumbling mini-cathedral/artists’ hive; practices the keeping of the hours and the acts of the liturgical year; and runs an auto repair shop. They are well known for humble, re-life discipleship; a warm and open table; and plenty of hookas and beer. In short, Kevin and the gang are my kind of people!

Kevin’s recently taken on a research project as a part of his ongoing quest for higher education. We thought it would be fun to let y’all listen in. You can read our chat here and Kev’s info. exchange with postmodern abbots and abbesses over at his place.

Welcome to the conversation!

Kev Says:
“.…I am also working on some papers for graduate classes I am taking and wanted to gain some of your hard-won in-the-trenches-practical wisdom on the whole new monasticism especially in the area of being an Abbess. Can you tell me everything you know in 20 words or less? =)

How does being an Abbess differ from other types of leadership? i.e. how is it different from say, pastoring?”

And Rachelle Rambles On….

The Physical Space is Different
I’ve served as a traditional pastor and as an abbess, and after 15 years as a church leader, three years as a staff pastor, and almost five years as an abbess I can tell you that the first thing that comes to mind is, “Phew, what a relief! As an abbess I no longer have to take care of that building!” Don’t get me wrong, I love sanctuaries, I adore holy places, and a well-build church is a thing of beauty — even a place of transcendence. But I think churches often get into this vicious cycle where the building is so expensive, and the tithes are so important, that the staff and the other leaders end up doing the things that will appease the congregation – not because the congregation needs this or that, but because they are the ones providing the rent. At least, that was a big pressure for us – how to take care of the building and the mortgage. We spent a lot of time not taking care of the “least, the last, and the lost” because we had to do what would keep the tithing congregation strong and giving. Not that everything we did was a waste – not at all, but we always felt that monetary/building pressure. Or, at least I did.

However, as an abbess that pressure is gone. Our community meets in a home, and we all have to cover the cost of “home” anyhow – so it’s not an additional expenditure of resources to provide a place for us to gather. That is, we don’t have to come up with rent for our bed and rent for our altar – it’s all in the same place. Also, I’m bi-vocational (um…make that quad-vocational: writer/spiritual director/stay at home mom/abbess) so our community doesn’t have to pay me. (This isn’t – and shouldn’t – be the case with every community. If our family was in need, and we didn’t have other means of bringing in income, I’m sure our community would tithe to help us survive.) Money and titles are two things that really contribute to power dynamics. Without the title of “pastor” and without being “paid clergy”, the power dynamic in our community flattens out significantly and I become less of a power-based leader and more of a power-releasing hostess.

Outside the Castle Walls
The other big shift for me, which is more important than the issue of the building, is how much time I can now spend outside the castle walls. In traditional churches the pastor tends to spend most of her time with the folks that are already inside the castle walls – already in the church. But the kingdom is so much larger than that! The kingdom includes all those people who aren’t courtiers or kings – the people who live in the fields and the blacksmith shoppes and the dairies. As an abbess my duties to the “already Christians” are small, and this gives me more time to spend with the folks who live outside the castle – with my neighbors, and families from the kid’s public school, and folks in our neo-pagan artists community. I was NEVER able to do this as a pastor.

Now, to be sure, Monkfish Abbey has intentionally developed our worship and gathering times so as to prioritize spending time in our parish. It took us a while to let go of the idea of a big weekly art-based worship extravaganza. But we knew we had to let that go in order to stay connected with the kingdom residents. Now our worship is very simple and our time outside the castle has expanded greatly. For instance, in our first year of gathering I gave some of our folks permission to stop tithing so they could afford to buy pitchers of beer when they were out doing open mic nights. Living outside the walls with a community of musicians was getting too expensive for them, and we had to re-allocate some funds. Now that kind of think is di rigueur for us – in fact, that’s one of the main things I do for the monks – give them permission to live differently and still be Jesus followers.

If you see Buddha on the Road…Eugene Peterson once told our class and old saying: “If you see Buddha on the road, kill him.” The idea was that it’s never good to have or be a guru. Pastors often end up being gurus – people look to them to have all the answers and they become a sort of depository where congregants can come to make an “answer withdrawal.” As a pastor, this stressed me out to no end. I’ll let you in on a secret folks – pastors know some stuff, but not nearly as much as you think we do. I didn’t like being the answer repository. However, I am pretty good at being present, listening for answers, and being a withmate. This is what I can do as an Abbess – not provide answers, but travel with a small group of fellow journey-makers. I’m not sure how this works, but somehow, making the shift from answer-holder to fellow-traveler has allowed wisdom to be held not just by me, but by the community. Conversation over beer and dinner allows our community to guide one another. Sure, I still sometimes sit down with people one-on-one for more focused spiritual direction. But it’s our out-living of life together that really helps us find direction and hear from God.

An Integrated Life
Moving from pastoring to being an abbess has helped me decompartmentalize my living. Work and service; prayer and conversation; art and worship; home and sanctuary are now an integrated whole. My spirituality has shifted, almost effortlessly, from being something I did in a particular place on a particular day to something that happens–is happening– all the time in every act. When your place of worship is your living room and your altar is the kitchen table, mundane things like eating and talking become holy acts; conversation becomes prayer; making a meal becomes both service and worship. This blending living spills out into other aspects of your life and you have more parish care, more integrated spirituality. This has been the biggest shift for me from pastoring, – which was a job done for and to a group of people in a particular place, mostly on a particular day – to being an abbess, which involves all the lives that touch mine and that I touch.

Oooh! This is fun! What else do you want to know?

One Response to “From the Trenches with Kevin Rains”

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