In the Church Zone

By Karen Oliveto, MDiv 1983 

Five years ago, when I became associate dean at Pacific School of Religion, I had the most jarring experience: I went to the movies on a Saturday night. This may sound benign, but as one who had spent more than 25 years preaching every Sunday, I felt like I had entered a new country. Who were all these people, and what were they doing out on a Saturday night?

Professional athletes have their training programs and plans to ensure readiness for a major event or meet. As a parish pastor, most Saturday nights of my adult life have been spent preparing for Sunday morning, preparing myself spiritually and emotionally to lead a congregation in worship. Friends knew not to ask  me to a party (I would politely decline), and family never had high expectations of me (I was not the best Saturday dinner conversationalist). On the odd Saturday night that found me in a social setting, I was worse than Cinderella at the ball: If I wasn’t in bed by 9 pm, surely my soul on Sunday would be as hollow as a carved-out pumpkin, lacking the spiritual substance to lead a congregation in praise of God. I usually left the party before most of the guests had even arrived.

So imagine my surprise when I went to a Saturday night movie shortly after beginning my position at PSR. People! Lots of people! People lingering over a late dinner! People going to the (gasp!) late showing of a film! There was a whole world  of which I was unaware. Clearly, I had spent too many years as a cloistered clergywoman, so I did my best to get the most out of this “cross- cultural” experience.

After four years at PSR enjoying my Saturday nights, unencumbered by the specter of Sunday worship duties, I have been surprised at how easily—almost instinctively—I have returned to this soulful activity upon my appointment last year to Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. It feels like a behavioral trait that is imprinted in my soul as I face weekly worship duties once again.

Having some time away from this weekly ritual has given me a keener recognition of the pull and sway it has on my life. Now, as I feel myself drawn to its power (at around 5 pm on most Saturdays), I can name it. I can also alert others who may have greater social expectations for me on a Saturday than I can provide. I simply post a status update on Facebook: “Karen Oliveto is in the Church Zone.”

Some friends scratch their heads and type back, “What’s that?” But there are others who know exactly what I am talking about. It is the tug of the Spirit  that begs for attention. It is the mindfulness of the broken body that will gather in the morning, with all the pain, grief, tears, joy, laughter, wounds, betrayals, and love that a community holds in common. It is the consideration of those whose legacy of faithful witness brought us to this place while at the same time wondering what we will bequeath to those who will follow after us. It is the discipline of wrestling with sacred texts, hoping to provide a word that will break these ancient stories open into the lives of those who will gather in the morning. It solicits from me a prayerfully intense posture as I consider the awesome, audacious task of helping others engage their whole selves in an experience of God. The Church Zone is the spiritual discipline required to do this work of worship and, in the words of the 18th-century theologian Isaac Watts, it “demands my life, my soul, my all.”