Practicing Pilgrimage

An interview with PTS alumnus Brett Webb-Mitchell about ministry, advocacy, and the pilgrimage of faith
Wide Image Brett Webb Mitchell

You’ve been busy since graduating from Princeton Seminary. Besides finishing your tenth book, what has your ministry looked like?
Along with being a pilgrim, I am a scholar-activist-pastor. I have had the honor of teaching at two institutions—Duke University and North Carolina Central University. Since I was ordained in 1983, I have served eight churches as either a teaching elder on a ministerial staff, or as an interim pastor. As a gay dad and the only out Presbyterian pastor in the state of Oregon, I have also been an advocate for LGBTQ folks and an advocate for people living with disabilities in and among faith communities. I am currently serving as the senior interim pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland. Along with writing about pilgrimage, I also created and maintain the religious nonprofit, School of the Pilgrim where I teach, lead workshops, and guide people on pilgrimage.

Brett Webb Mitchell Practicing Pilgrimage

Tell us about your new book Practicing Pilgrimage: On Being and Becoming God’s Pilgrim People.
This is my third book on pilgrimage. My first book, Follow Me: Christian Growth on the Pilgrim’s Way (Seabury Press, 2006) is a collection of personal essays in which I explore the very practice of pilgrimage around the world. My second book, School of the Pilgrim (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), is about the theology, philosophy, and anthropology of pilgrimage as “faith in action.” And my new book, Practicing Pilgrimage (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016), is a “how to” book on pilgrimage. It explores and provides practices not only for going on an actual, intentional pilgrimage, but sets the experience of an actual pilgrimage in the broader context of the Christian life as a pilgrimage. Each day, Christians are invited by Jesus, the Pilgrim God, to go on pilgrimage. As a Christian religious educator, discussing pilgrimage is a way of educating Christians on the ways of Jesus in our contemporary world.

How is your book useful to Christian leaders?
First, the emphasis in Practicing Pilgrimage is the very practice, the activity, or pilgrimage itself. While many other books explore the experience of pilgrimage, they fail in providing a structure, a set of practices for doing an actual pilgrimage. For example, when you walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, there are no religious practices offered to the pilgrim as to how to make this pilgrimage a religious or spiritual pilgrimage. Second, this book of practices makes it possible for people to do a pilgrimage not only in distant lands, but in one’s own backyard, in suburban enclaves, rural fields, or urban street settings. Finally, this book explores the Christian life as a daily pilgrimage, or what I call the pilgrimage of everyday life.

You are the founder and director of the School of the Pilgrim, which is creating a new approach to educating Christians in the world today. Tell us about the school and its mission.
I created the nonprofit School of the Pilgrim in 2007 after having taught at Duke Divinity School for more than a decade. At the time, there wasn’t—and still isn’t—an organization, a center at a seminary, or any other group that creates a connection with people with pilgrimage opportunities throughout the world. The mission? To assist people to break out of the “religion of rush,” like “rush hour” to connect to the ancient religious practice of pilgrimage in our contemporary world. Through the School of the Pilgrim, I work with church groups, sessions, and other nonprofit boards in exploring the ways we are all in the process of being and becoming who God has created us to be. The pilgrims I have met on the road of life talk about transformation, of change, of process, which is also the language of the church. But to echo what I said earlier, twenty-five times across the four gospels, Jesus says, “Follow me,” and I think we are still trying to figure that out. The School of the Pilgrim is designed to help people figure that out, right where they live.

How were you inspired to think creatively during your time as a Princeton Seminary student?
I tended to hang out with the professors, staff, and students who “thought outside of the box,” to use a time-worn cliché. We were a motley crew who also wondered, “What if?” In studying transformation with Jim Loder, the creative arts with Freda Gardner and Bob Jacks, the poetry of Robert Frost with Bill Brower, ethics with Gibson Winters, theology with Sang Lee...these were the people who pushed me to think and be creative in the call of ministry.

What advice do you have for students as they prepare to head out into the world to follow the call of God in their lives?
There it is! In your very question: “to follow.” To follow Jesus, the living Christ, will lead us on a life that is beyond our wildest dreams and expectations. Some will be called by God to serve in a local parish, but to follow Jesus will lead us to places in various times of our lives that will surprise, sometimes upset, but will never be boring. If we follow brother Jesus, the Pilgrim God, inspired by the Spirit, then the life we live will meet the world’s greatest needs with the gifts and talents that we’ve been given by our creator.

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Senior Pastor, Asbury United Methodist Church, Atlantic City, NJ

Latasha Milton, Class of 2018

“My passion is doing what I can to empower and liberate people who are hurting. PTS has made me a better person and pastor because it’s given me the tools to better serve the oppressed and marginalized.”