At first they seem like a group of old frat buddies meeting after work. Over pizzas and pints, they commiserate over troubles at the office. They discuss sports and the hard luck of favorite teams. They playfully argue, tell off-color jokes and laugh. And they even have a signature chant, which booms across the bar and makes others turn to investigate.
However, these guys are a little different than the typical bar crowd. One wears a clerical collar. Another asks for advice about teaching the book of Job. And all wonder aloud about the fate of low income parishioners who may lose housing assistance. In a way these guys are frat buddies, but from a higher, holier order. They are the Seven Reverends, clergy from local churches and religious organizations, that meet each Tuesday to drink beer and offer friendship and support. It is a group that the reverends say benefits not only them by providing a social sanctuary, but also the community by humanizing its religious leaders.
“This is good for us. It really is,” said Mark Pries, the senior pastor at Zion Lutheran, while meeting with fellow reverends in November. “I need an island.”
“You need a beer,” quipped one of his colleagues.
Two Lutherans, a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian and a Baptist walked into a bar. It sounds like the set-up to a good joke, but according to Mel Schlachter that is how it all began about ten years ago. Schlachter, the retired senior pastor from Trinity Episcopal Church, said there was a need and desire among the area’s clergy for camaraderie outside the churches they worked for. In essence, they wanted what Schlachter called a “clergy support group.” After trying a couple different venues and formats, they eventually settled on a standing meeting every Tuesday afternoon at the Old Capitol Brew Works & Public House, where they drink pints and speak their minds.
“It is a place where we talk about our lives,” said Paul Shultz, the campus minister for the Wesley Foundation. “For me it was a place I could be myself. It was very comfortable, very relaxing.”
Though the group is known as the Seven Reverends, Rob Dotzel, the campus pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, said 18 different ministers have been members at one time or another. There are eight regular members right now, he said, but not all are always there. Seven is their “magic number.” Church associates are sometimes invited and Dotzel said the group is open to clergy and leaders from other faiths. And though their wives and female clergy join them from time to time, it is mostly an all-boys club.
They usually start at the bar. They order pints and chat with each other, the servers and the late afternoon regulars. If enough of the reverends turn up, they carry their beers to a table in the back, munch on popcorn, order pizza and shoot the breeze.
Shultz, who said he has been a regular with the Reverends for six or seven years, said the Tuesday meetings are a safe haven that offer confidentiality. They do not have to worry about the internal politics of their respective denominations, or appeasing their colleagues, because none of the reverends are affiliated with each other. That freedom allows them to speak their minds without having to worry about consequences.
Discussions are open and frank, and range from theology to sexuality. The reverends are comfortable with their faith, but not afraid to question. They do not take themselves too seriously. Four-letter words are uttered.
“We say the words that we don’t say in our public ministry,” said Dotzel with a laugh.
The church setting, he said, does not offer the freedom they enjoy at the bar. In church, they play a symbolic role for their parishioners. “But it’s not all that you are,” Dotzel said. “There is also an individual inside that wants to be expressed, that needs to be expressed and that sometimes gets subsumed by the role.” Their weekly meetings allow them to step outside that role, get together, laugh and be guys.
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The ministry can be a joyous profession, said Dotzel, but it can also be emotionally and mentally challenging. Funeral services, visits to hospitals and nursing homes, infighting on congregational councils and money issues take their toll. The Tuesday evening meetings offer the reverends a place where they can vent to others who empathize.
The meetings also serve to ease what they call “the lone wolf mentality.”
“The ministry can be isolating,” said Dotzel. “If you don’t make an effort to connect with people who understand what the role of a pastor is in the community, you can be overwhelmed by all the demanding needs. Some people put their heads down and just let themselves get buried in it and that becomes their whole identity. And we get together to try to remember that the church isn’t our whole identity. We’re also men, we’re also people, individuals and we have lives and interests outside of work that we can talk about.”
One common interest is good, cheap microbrew—which, Dotzel said, is the reason they always meet at “OCBW.” They started meeting there when the beer was brewed next door and have developed a Cheers-like relationship with the bar. They are on a first-name basis with many of the staff and fellow regulars, who sometimes seek the reverends’ counsel regarding personal and spiritual matters. Shultz has even officiated weddings for those he has gotten to know at Old Capitol. At this point, he said, he is probably considered the bar’s chaplain.
“That bar has a chaplain and that chaplain happens to be me, and I enjoy it,” said Shultz. “I enjoy the people there. Why should my ministry only be [the Wesley Foundation]?”
The reverends’ relationship with the bar is such that they even have a beer named in their honor: Seven Reverends, a Belgian abbey ale released every winter.
“This is the only time in my life when I have had a long standing relationship with a particular bar,” said Dotzel, an admirer of Bavarian wheat beers. “I have a bar like I have a church. That’s my bar!”
While some of the reverends stay long enough to have a couple beers—very rarely do they drink enough to get tipsy, and Shultz, as a Methodist, is vowed not to be drunk in public—others may only stop in to say “hi” and reconnect for a short time. It all depends on their schedules that day, said Dotzel. They are busy men, with Bible studies to lead and church committees to chair. The meetings only last for a couple hours, long enough for them to eventually yell their signature chant, reserved for good news or when seven of them are present: “We don’t, we don’t, we don’t mess around! Hey!”
“That’s what she said,” one of them snickered after the chant in November.
A number of patrons at the bar turned and looked to the table in the back. “Keep it down, reverends!” someone teased.
“Shut the eff up!” countered Shultz.
Casey Wagner lives in Iowa City.