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The Hollowness of the Mainline, Now and Then

November 29th, 2022 | 5 min read

By Cole Hartin

Douglas J. Brouwer Chasing After Wind: A Pastor’s Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. 238 pp. $22.00

It’s no secret that Western Christianity is in decline. And this is nowhere more evident than in the once venerable churches of the mainline. Decline is a problem. And typically, there are two solutions offered for the problem of decline: One solution is simply to ignore it. Keep on moving as if the pews are full, the offering flowing, until congregation after congregation closes its doors. Another solution is to reinvent the church. The old ways of worship, the outdated doctrines, these must be shorn to make room for what will attract “the young folks.” Experiments abound (and mostly fail).

In short, we attempt to deal with the problem of decline while living in the memory of a golden age of mainline Protestantism. Fifty, sixty years ago, our churches were full and thriving. To be a priest or pastor was to be in a place of honour. A whole generation of clergy, then, were eyewitnesses to the pinnacle of Western Christianity, and the beginnings of its demise. Douglas J. Brouwer’s Chasing After Wind: A Pastor’s Life gives one such account of this trajectory.

Reading Chasing After Wind feels a bit like sitting at the bar beside a retired Presbyterian pastor as he spends a long night monologuing about the highs and lows of his life and ministry. Parts of the reminiscence are precious and beautiful; some feel a little too close to self-castigation. At the end of the night, however, when the last call goes out, a feeling of sadness looms in the air — sadness for a life of ambition in a church that might not exist in a few decades. In some ways this is no surprise. The title of the book is Chasing After Wind. But it remains deeply unsettling.

The book is a series of reflections on Christian life and vocational ministry that roughly follow the contours of Brouwer’s life. The project began around the time of Brouwer’s retirement, after forty years of ministry as a Presbyterian pastor. The book is a symbol of Brouwer’s struggle to, as he puts it, “remember who I am” (3) after four decades of a carefully curated persona.

The arc of the book follows Brouwer’s upbringing in a strict Dutch Reformed family in the Midwest, follows through his education at Calvin College, on to Princeton Seminary (including his transition to the Presbyterian world of the PCUSA), and his subsequent ministry throughout the Midwest (Wheaton, Ann Arbor), Florida, and finally Zürich.

One of the most striking features of this book is the raw honesty that Brouwer brings to the table. He looks at his career with an unflinching eye. Of his pastoral ministry he writes,

How I came to the end with a mixture of gratitude and relief continues to be a puzzle I am working on. I know the broad outline of the story, of course, but I wonder if it adds up to anything. The money I once raised to build a gym, some classrooms, and a parking lot? Was that a good idea? I thought so at the time. I poured myself into it. I made fundraising trips to Florida and California. And I neglected my family in the process. But now I wonder if those millions of dollars could have been better used on something else. (5)

This paragraph could summarize the whole book. Brouwer had incredible successes in his ministry as the result of his hard work, sound leadership, and the rising tide of congregational life. Yet, in hindsight, little of this has the same significance that he thought it would. And people — his family — were not unscathed.

The earlier parts of the book recall fond memories of the spartan discipline that Dutch Calvinism demands; in third grade, for instance, Brouwer had to begin memorizing the Heidelberg Catechism (15). There are some lovely insights throughout the text as well, like Brouwer’s realization that so much of pastoral ministry depends not on the minister’s gifts or talents, but on the congregation’s willingness to love and support them through their blunders: “Let me put this reality as simply as I can: the good people at the church in Iowa City loved me… they gave me the best gift it is possible to give a preacher: they listened to me” (67-8).

Another highlight, a little later on in the book, is Brouwer’s argument for the positive uses of disillusionment. Disillusionment can propel us forward to a more authentic way of living. Brouwer riffs on Barbara Brown Taylor, writing: “I find myself wishing that I had allowed myself to be disillusioned much earlier in my life and work. If I had seen clearly at the beginning, I might have dared, in Taylor’s language, to turn away from one way of being a pastor in order to seek a different way, a healthier and more authentic way” (140).

Though the book has several poignant, moving anecdotes and snatches of life wisdom, it doesn’t contain a lot of theology. It’s a memoir, after all, and so this might not be a surprise. It’s not even a full-blown criticism. Still, it’s worth pointing out. When Brouwer is reflecting on his life and ministry, the primary conversation partners are not theologians (though Bonhoeffer and Buechner both make appearances) but other memoirists. In fact, if the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter are any indication of Brouwer’s readings, he is predominantly influenced by memoirs from the past forty years. Brouwer was not interested in understanding his life theologically, in figuring out where God was leading him and his family. To see him struggle a little more with the theological implications of all of this would have been instructive.

Brouwer did spend a significant amount of time throughout the memoir reflecting on race and sex. He frequently points out when those he is writing about are “white and male” (135) and appears to be sensitive about his own identity “as a white, heterosexual male” (121). Though he apparently kept his views veiled for most of his ministry, since graduating from Princeton his “stance was that gays and lesbians should be welcomed fully and without condition into the Christian church and that ordination should be open to them” (57). He expresses regret for not having taken a firm stand on this earlier in his ministry. A desire to fit in led Brouwer to keep his views to himself throughout his ministry. Now that the cultural tides have changed, are these confessions an attempt to keep in step with current norms?

I enjoyed reading Chasing After Wind. I enjoyed Brouwer’s honestly. But it was discouraging and sad, a reminder of the hollowness of mainline Christianity, not only as it declines, but during its halcyon days as well. Brouwer had the intuition to see he was falling short. His honesty was refreshing, but he could not quite point to what he was missing, save for being on the other side of political battles about sex or race. Few pastors can commend fully their life and ministry, but Brouwer could have gone beyond lamenting his shortfalls. He could have pointed readers to a pastoral ideal, even if it was ultimately out of his reach.

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