Steve Teague: Having Faith in Milwaukee
Father Steve Teague has been leading the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for almost ten years, with a career in the clergy stretching back four decades. As an advocate for social justice, personal faith, and religious tolerance, he shares a lifetime of spiritual insight about Christianity in the community.
Q: Society has expectations of you as a church leader, which can be a lonely position. When people have a crisis of faith, they turn to a priest. Who do you turn to?
A: I turn to my wife Karen, to other family members, to close friends in ministry whom I trust for their wisdom. I also know I have the ear of our bishop.
Q: Why do you think younger generations today have not been exposed to the Church in Milwaukee, and what is their view of faith institutions as a result?
A: I think this issue is related to all mainline denominations in America, not just to Milwaukee. Families have many more choices for their children that compete with the church. Our culture’s expectations about church involvement is no longer strong, which may be a good thing.
I talk mainly with younger people who find something missing in their lives, and want to explore what a church offers. Many have little church experience, or rejected what they had been exposed to. Those who have no interest at this point in the church, I can only speculate about why. I sense some of the louder religious voices in the media alienate them.
Sadly the Episcopal Church is positioned to be a place for people to use their brains, bring their doubts, explore, and grow. We haven’t done a good job at inviting people, however. Some are working out their own thing without the church’s help. And some churches have not been helpful, intellectually or in loving and caring for people where they are – not as pieces to keep the institution churning.
Q: It is hard to generalize, but many non-Christians point to Christian behavior as a reason they avoid the faith. Why does it seem like so many Christians are doing the opposite of what their faith teaches?
A: This is not a new generalization. Sometimes if people are not interested in church and faith, they may use this as a reason to avoid it. First, the church can improve understanding by stressing that joining a church is only a beginning. I think we need to provide more help for people to understand the transformation in lives that discipleship demands. Secondly, I wish those who match their words and actions were raised up more as positive examples. We do have many who act on their faith. They tend to be forgotten or left out of conversations about faith these days.
Q: Aside from God, who was the most influential person on your early life and why?
A: My father. He was a gentle, loving man, a strong and wise business man, and an example of church service and living faith throughout his life.
Q: Mental illness is a deeply misunderstood medical condition. Is there any room in the civic process of care for treatment with faith?
A: I think there are faith components for people who reach a level of stability in the illness process. I am wary of specifically “religious” counseling or treatment because religion has been used abusively to control and punish. I think the medical community, counseling and social work communities are primary with mental illness treatment.
Q: You are not originally from Milwaukee, how would you characterize the faith community here compared to other cities?
A: I observe that different regions have particular characteristics. I see many signs of faith alive and strong here. Often that is not seen in overt behaviors that one would link with faith, but it expresses a deeply held and lived faith. I think there is a quieter expression in the faith community of Milwaukee. I also have spent a lot of time in the South, where public faith commitment and activity seems to be more overt.
Q: The image of the Episcopal Church is often misunderstood and overshadowed by misperceptions of Catholicism. What has been the reaction when people realize how liberal and progressive the Episcopal doctrine actually is?
A: That’s an interesting question. The Episcopal Church is seen as liberal and progressive by comparison to the Roman Catholic Church, just because of the ordination of women, married priests, not being as dogmatic and rigid. Otherwise, we do share much of the historic faith of Christianity. Some former Roman Catholics find the Episcopal Church to be roomier, while also feeling comfortable with the sacraments, liturgy, and having more latitude with gender issues. The Episcopal Church also seems to be a good compromise for a strong Protestant or Free Church experience, and a strong liturgical background.
Q: Why do so many people say that Christianity in America is in decline, and do you agree with that condition in Milwaukee?
A: I think they say it because the metrics we have used to measure christianity say so. Average Sunday attendance, membership increases, growing budgets, and other indicators have measured growth. The culture is changing, and the church culture along with it. Christianity in its institutional form has been slow to acknowledge this. Now people exercise more individualism. They are spiritual but not religious. Nones, or people with no religious affiliation are also a growing population. And we are seeing the beginnings of Dones, those who leave their faith because the church has let them down in some way. I think right now it is accurate to say Christianity is declining, and its influence wanes in society.
Q: What is the most common question you are asked as the leader of a church?
A: I get a number of questions, mainly around what makes the Episcopal Church different, what our mission is, and what I do as a priest.
Q: If you could ask God any question and get an actual and direct answer from Him, what would it be?
A: Is love the energy of the universe, our manifestation as physical beings, and our final destiny?
Q: What is your biggest frustration with the general church community today?
A: Declining participation in worship and formation. I don’t know if this also means less of a desire to be in relationship with God. We don’t make enough spaces for people to have safe conversations in church. There’s a lot that competes with the church now in offering people meaning and purpose.
Q: So much of the Christian foundation is based on the liberation from death, but it seems like Christians today are more afraid of dying than ever. What factors contribute to this fear and lack of inner-peace?
A: I don’t think our foundation is less liberation from death, as much as learning how to live fully in this world. We live in a death denying society. I don’t know that Christians today fear death any more or less than previous generations. Death is an unknown mystery, without a clear picture of what awaits. I think the bigger issue is the fear of suffering leading to death.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest success of the Christian church in Milwaukee, and what is its biggest failure?
A: We have a ways to go to bring faith into solutions for some of our biggest social problems, serving the marginalized, children, single-parent families, and poverty. Some churches do more than others. I appreciate the efforts our St. Paul’s Episcopal Church makes to be involved in social outreach in the city.
Q: Why are Christians perceived as being so intolerant of other religions?
A: I think some of it is from the tenants of a superiority complex that we are right. If you are not like us, then you must be wrong. I think many Christians, and a growing fear enveloping Americans, gives birth to intolerance. Most televangelists and prosperity preachers, in my opinion, are not congenial with Jesus’ teachings. I like what Desmond Tutu and others have said, God is not a Christian.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of being a church leader, and the aspect of it that is least pleasant for you?
A: Pastoral care, holy conversations, being invited into peoples’ lives in vulnerable and painful times, as well as times of celebration are rewarding, and I enjoy very much. The least pleasant aspect is losing people who move away, stop attending, and by death.
Q: As leader of one of the most historic churches in Wisconsin, what value do you see to this connection to history? And how does a nearly two hundred year old church preserve its legacy?
A: The value for me is those who have gone before us, and the shoulders on which we now stand. I also have learned more of Milwaukee’s history through the stories I have been told about the founding members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and those who followed. Paul Haubrich, our church historian helps me understand the nuances of our past. My concern is that people forget we are a church and not a museum. We preserve our legacy by being a healthy, vital parish in our present day. It is our contribution for the future as an outpost of God’s mission.