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Prominent Presbyterian pastor: ‘God’s not a Christian . . . We are’

Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut: “Of course, I doubt . . . Look at what just unfolded in our world in Las Vegas.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, pastor of historic Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s Mag Mile, a Texas native, says about faith, “I think complacency is deadly . . . I’m always going to be on this journey of discovery.”

Kershner, now 45, was hired in 2014 as pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Churchone of the nation’s largest Presbyterian congregations, with roughly 5,500 “active adults.”

Fourth Presbyterian is “a fascinating congregation” where people “choose to come here to worship,” some from more than an hour away, and there’s a tradition of challenging members “spiritually and intellectually.

“The sanctuary doors are open every day until evening,” and, with a large homeless population in the area, “we are a literal sanctuary for a lot of folks who need a place to be.”


Grew up mostly in Waco, Texas, where her father was a Presbyterian minister for decades — including in 1993, when federal agents laid siege near Waco to the Branch Davidian compound led by cult leader David Koresh.

Her family’s church balcony “would be full of foreign journalists every week, trying to get a sense of what normal religious life was like in Waco.”

Initially had no plans to go into ministry, thinking she’d be a child psychologist.

Felt a strong call to the clergy the summer after high school, but her parents advised her “to go to college and think about it.” She decided at the end of college to enter the seminary.


Felt a desire to “reform the institution of church from the inside out,” including on “issues of equality.”

Disagrees with the portrayal of God as “some big man in the sky” and wanted to move “beyond this idol of maleness that we’ve constructed both for the divine as well as for clergy.

“I wanted to make sure that little girls knew that God could call them to be pastors, too.”


So why the “Fourth” in Fourth Presbyterian Church?

“It was the result of some different mergers — and ‘Fourth’ wasn’t taken yet.”


Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner: “I really do not overly concern myself with issues of salvation, especially salvation of other folks — that’s God’s job description and not my own.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

For Presbyterians, “the Church of Scotland is our mother church,” with traits that include being “pretty suspicious of concentrating power in the hands of just one person . . . We do everything by groups” and believe “that we hear the voice of God most clearly” through “conversation with others” and “passionate debate.

“Being a Presbyterian is messy . . . There’s a lot of gray in our denomination,” and “you can have differing understandings” of the bible and “still be a good Presbyterian.”


“I really do not overly concern myself with issues of salvation, especially salvation of other folks — that’s God’s job description and not my own.”


Does Kershner ever have doubts of faith?

“Yeah, I move in and out of those seasons on a pretty regular basis.

“Of course, I doubt . . . Look at what just unfolded in our world in Las Vegas . . . that terror and that lack of care for humanity is overwhelming, and God has some explaining to do.”

Says there have been times in her past assignments when she climbed to the pulpit “needing to borrow the faith of those in the congregation for a while. I had a season of that when we miscarried our first child, had no words and could not come up with words.”

Doubt is “healthy.” It’s “not the opposite of faith; fear is . . . It means that I care, and I’m in a deep relationship with this mystery called God . . . I hope I’m never so sure. I hope I always have this question and this wanting to discern more and dig in more.”


“I think complacency is deadly, and I think that it’s also idolatrous. I think once you think you’ve figured God out, well, that doesn’t even make sense to me. So I’m always going to be on this journey of discovery. And sometimes it’s going to be fueled more by hope, and sometime it’s going to be fueled more by skepticism. But all of that is faithful.”


On tackling street violence, as some Chicago-area congregations have tried: “We have adopted a posture of humility and of waiting to be brought into those conversations to see how we can be of assistance.

“These are our kids, too.”


“I’ve never lived in a city so defined and segregated by neighborhood before as Chicago.”


Is Christianity the only way to heaven?

“No, God’s not a Christian. I mean, we are . . . For me, the Christian tradition is the way to understand God and my relationship with the world and other humans . . . But I’m not about to say what God can and cannot do in other ways and with other spiritual experiences.”


Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner presided at the January 2015 funeral service for Ernie Banks at Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Sun-Times files

Kershner’s husband has a divinity degree, too. Do they have regular theological discussions?

“We have two teenagers, so not so much.”


“If I’m bored when I’m writing a sermon, I start over.”


During the election, when old recordings surfaced of Donald Trump talking with a celebrity interviewer about grabbing and groping women, “I spoke out fairly candidly — after the ‘Access Hollywood‘ tapes were released — about my real disappointment and anger about that environment being what my teenage daughter’s growing up in. And, as a woman, I think, and, as a church, we need to say no to that kind of dehumanization and misogyny that was represented on those tapes. So I think that that was hard for some folks to hear, but I wouldn’t change it.”


Federal rules governing tax-exempt nonprofits allow clergy to be “political in the pulpit; the gospel is political,” but clergy aren’t supposed to be “partisan.”

Trump’s talk about giving “church pastors permission to be openly partisan in the pulpit and to tell you who to vote for is an awful idea.”


“There are all kinds of subversive, strong, courageous women all through scripture . . . That gives me great courage.”

Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.

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