Reverend Heather Prince Doss is the pastor at Eliot Church in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. The church is known for its multicultural congregation with members from Cambodia, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Brazil, the United States, and more. Before joining that church in 2015, she served for seven years as the Associate Pastor at Sea Island Presbyterian Church located in Beaufort, South Carolina. Pastor Heather is also the owner of Progressive Pilgrimage, a company that organizes group travel to the Holy Land. TSIBV caught up with her to learn more about why she joined the ministry, to understand what it’s like to be a pastor, and to discuss Jesus appearing in toast.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m an Aries. When my now-husband, Eric, was about to pop the question, my dad warned him about this saying, “She’s a fiery one.” I think that’s true.
I’m a strong “P” on the Meyers-Briggs type indicator. I summarize that by saying that I like having choices but I hate making choices. (Once you make a choice, you don’t have any more choices. It’s terrible, really.) On the up side, it means I’m really great at imagining possibilities and finding creative ways to solve problems.
I’m a 7 on the Enneagram – an energizer. I’m always trying to get people together to do things – board games, karaoke (I can’t sing), dinner parties, community service, whatever.
When did you decide to join the ministry, and how did you accomplish that?
Despite my dreaminess, I also have a very rational side. When I was a teenager, my parents nudged me toward becoming a doctor because I was fairly good in school. As I began to look at colleges with pre-med programs, though, I realized I really didn’t love science. The path to becoming a doctor looked pretty daunting. What I did love was thinking about God and going to church. This made me a weird teenager, but it also was a very rational path to discerning a “call” to ministry, as we say.
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), there’s a very clear cut process for that: finish college and three years of seminary, pass five ordination exams, get approved by a committee in your region (called a presbytery), find a church that wants to hire you. It’s not easy, but there’s a map.
You’re currently a pastor at Eliot Presbyterian Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. How did you specifically end up there?
That’s a long story that covers most of my career.
The short version is that I have always had a lot of compassion for people living on the margins of our culture: people who are impoverished, homeless, addicted, immigrants, and so on. I worked with homeless men and women for a couple years after seminary – sort of a detour from the map mentioned above – and in many ways I was at my best there. But the religious and spiritual aspect was missing. So I accepted a position as an associate pastor in a fairly typical white, well-educated congregation in a small town in South Carolina. That job was incredible in many ways, especially for preparing me to run an organization and care for a large number of people. We did some impactful community work in that church, too. But after seven years, it was time to take the next step. My dream was not to pastor a church that did good things for the people on the margins but do pastor a church that is the people on the margins. Jesus was always hanging out with marginal people. That’s what I wanted to do, too. I probably wouldn’t have picked Lowell, Massachusetts on my own, but the congregation and the job fit the bill pretty well.
Eliot on Easter Sunday. Pastor Heather is giving the children’s story.
Your church describes itself as “A multicultural, urban church”. How do you describe that phrase to others, and how does that make you different than other places of worship?
About 2/3 of my congregation are immigrants to the United States or first-generation Americans. Those are divided pretty equally between Cambodians (who came after the genocide there in the late 1970s) and West Africans (particularly Cameroonians and Ghanians, many of whom were Presbyterians in their home countries). We also have a few folks from other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, a couple African-Americans, and one family from Brazil. The other 1/3 of the people are of European ancestry. Our leadership structure reflects this diversity, which is really important and means we have to work hard to understand how various cultures approach leadership and decision making.
As for being urban, we are located in downtown Lowell, a small but very dense city. Our area of downtown includes the main homeless shelter, the Salvation Army, and a fairly large public housing development. The church is also host to St. Paul’s Kitchen, a private nonprofit that provides a free hot meal five nights per week. We have about 120-150 coming through our building for a meal every day. While nobody has given me this title, I think of myself as a chaplain to that community. I have done three funerals for St. Paul’s guests. A handful come to Sunday morning services regularly. Two have become full members of the congregation.
African Choir uniform dedication day.
Celebrating Cambodian new year.
There are many types of Protestant denominations, the Presbyterianism itself is separated into USA (the most common) and many other subsets. What makes the USA denomination different, and what led you to that branch of Presbyterianism.
This is a big question, and I’ll probably offend someone!
The PC(USA) is probably the most progressive of the Presbyterian traditions, especially when it comes to ecclesiastical and social issues like ordination, marriage, racism, poverty, immigration, climate change, etc. In the PC(USA), women and LGBTQIA+ persons can serve as pastors and lay leaders. Our clergy can marry same-gender couples. We have supported Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s’ Campaign. We have stood up to unjust immigration policies and the detention of children by both this administration and the previous one. I’m proud of all those positions and actions of my denomination, though I’m not sure every Presbyterian agrees. Which brings me to the other thing I love about being Presbyterian.
We have this policy of “mutual forbearance” in our tradition. It’s actually enshrined in our constitution. It basically means that in all non-essentials, we are supposed to bear with one another in our differences. And really, the only thing that is essential to being Christian is a confession that God is God and Jesus is Lord. So, in the PC(USA), there is a lot of room for people to disagree about a lot of things. At some point a person may decide that he (or she) has too many differences with the main body of thought in this tradition, and maybe then he wants to find a different tradition that suits him better. But ultimately, we believe that we belong in community even with people with whom we disagree.
I found my place in the Presbyterian Church (USA) because of Howard and Kristen, two Sunday School teachers who welcomed my questioning, difficult teenage self. As a young teen, I had been involved with a very dogmatic evangelical tradition. My parents became uncomfortable with that and insisted that we attend the PC(USA) church that we had attended in my early childhood. I thought this was a huge injustice, so I persevered in making things impossible for my Sunday School teachers. They were incredibly patient and took all of my questions and pushback in stride. The previous church I had been at never would have tolerated that. You were supposed to accept the answers you were given. The longer I stayed at the Presbyterian Church, the more I realized I liked asking hard questions and really wrestling with the answers.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of being a pastor? The most challenging?
The real reward is in the little things that are so hard to measure. Last night, I witnessed seven teenagers say in their own words what they believe about God and Jesus and the church. A woman who eats at St. Paul’s Kitchen and attends church occasionally has been super honest with me about her struggles and is so close to getting some much needed help. She’s not there yet, but I am hopeful. These tiny victories make me believe that we are doing something right at Eliot Church – that Jesus is still present here and we actually might be building God’s peaceable kingdom. (Also, I get to work from home on Mondays and Tuesdays – usually in my yoga pants.)
The challenge is that there is the tension between building a community and maintaining an institution. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. The institution should nurture the life of the community. But community is hard to measure. Institutional health is easier to measure. How many people come on Sunday morning? How much do they put in the offering plate each week? How many people are volunteering their time? And so on. On the one hand, we want the institution to be sustainable. But on the other hand, Jesus never really talked about sustainability. In fact, he died. So maybe we need to worry less about our institutions and more about the kind of community we are and how we are building community around us. You’ll need to remind me of that, though, when I get the monthly financial report from my treasurer. (In other challenges – working on Sundays can really cramp my weekend style!)
What advice would you give to others considering the ministry?
If you’re going to do this work, you need to be 100% in. Ministry is not a job that you can clock out of. It’s a role and if you can’t wear that role authentically, it will always be uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this impacts your family, too, both in the demands of the job and the expectations that others have of them. Get a good therapist, and always use all of your vacation.
Within many religions and other Christian denominations, women have been limited in what roles they can play. As a leader within your church, what are your thoughts on this, and do you feel any responsibilities or additional pressures that a man in your position would not have to address?
Sure, there are extra pressures. Women get much more unsolicited feedback on our physical attributes like clothes, weight, and voice. When we lead with authority, we are perceived as bitchy. We earn less. We are less likely to serve as heads of staff in churches with multiple pastors. I’m not sure these pressures different in ministry than in any other field. Maybe the opposition to women’s leadership gets baptized in more conservative circles. I’ve been lucky that almost all of the people close to me have been supportive of my career. For me, the challenges have been more cultural than religious.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is increasing with each generation. Over 35% of Millennials are unaffiliated. What are your thoughts on this trend, and what can the church do to improve these figures?
I do have some thoughts, but if I knew how to improve these figures I’d be a bestselling author already.
I’m on the cusp of GenX and Millennial. I get it. The church often feels irrelevant. Institutions are more likely to evoke suspicion than affection. Overall, I’m not really interested in how the church can attract one group or another. I’m mostly interested on how well we follow Jesus. But if a whole generation is saying, “No, thank you,” we should at least stop and listen to why they feel so disconnected.
From what I’ve read, Millennials are not necessarily eschewing a belief in God or a higher power. But the church has not been a place or a group of people where that generation has found it easy to connect with God. I’m pretty confident that Millennials would like Jesus – he’s pretty woke – but the church hasn’t been very woke. So there’s room for improvement there. If the church could behave less like an institution and more like a community, that might help, too. We have to meet people where they are, invite them into the community, and then trust that the Holy Spirit (I haven’t mentioned her yet!) is also working through them to shape the institution itself.
In other words, it’s not enough to attract Millennials, we also have to empower them and trust them with the future! That’s a struggle for older generations. We’re working on it, though.
What’s something you wished people knew about being a pastor that most don’t recognize?
Most people, even church people, have no idea what a pastor does besides what she does on Sunday morning. During the week I write liturgy and sermons, visit sick or homebound people, meet with my small but excellent staff, go to lots of community meetings about a host of issues, make Costco runs for supplies, design flyers, develop plans for visioning meetings of my board, pick up trash around the church property, read (less than I should), pray (also less than I should). It’s a lot like being the executive director of a small non-profit, plus preaching.
As a nation, we’re living in some interesting times. What advice do you give to others from both a religious and personal perspective?
Get involved in your community. I’m all for national-level groaning and organizing, but the most important thing we can be doing right now is getting to know our neighbors. A little cafe here in Lowell has a poster about how to build community. It says things like “Turn off your TV. Leave your house. Use the library. Talk to the mail carrier. Take children to the park. Pick up litter. Open your shades. Ask for help when you need it. Borrow from your neighbors. Share what you have.” This is not to say that getting to know our neighbors will make us like our neighbors. But I do think it will help fight the tide of isolation and loneliness and division that may well become part of our culture if we don’t do something about it.
Because this kind of community building is almost counter-cultural at this moment, the church is more important than ever. Building community what a pretty central part of what Jesus was up to on earth and it ought to be a pretty important part of what the church is up to, too. We practice community building in the church.
Protesting Trump’s Muslim ban at Boston Logan International Airport.
On the side you run a small travel company called Progressive Pilgrimage. What does your company do?
We organize and lead group travel to religiously significant destinations – mostly Israel/Palestine and Ireland. Pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual practice that has been revived recently in Protestant circles. Our goal is to organize trips that have intellectual integrity, spiritual reflection, and include meaningful encounters with local people in the places we visit. We mostly work with pastors and other leaders who bring an existing group. Once a year or so we offer a trip that’s open to the general public, too. The next one is an all-women yoga retreat in the Holy Land. I’m so excited!
At Jerash being photographed with a group of Jordanian students.
What are some of the things you’ve learned as a small business owner?
I have this romantic tendency to think, “If you build it he will come” or “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I love the concept of my business, and I know from customer feedback that we plan incredible trips. I’m learning that having a great idea and implementing it well is not enough. I have to sell. I have to get out there and look for customers and then do ongoing follow-up to maintain those relationships. It could easily be two years between the first contact and a departure date for a trip. That’s a long courtship. I’m still learning to put myself out there in the first place and the patience and the discipline to keep at it.
Which miracle was more impressive — Jesus turning water into wine, or Jesus appearing in this piece of toast?
Is this why they call it Wonder® Bread?!
Good news! Pastor Heather is all over the Internet. She maintains a blog, and you can learn more about Progressive Pilgrimage at its official site. You can also learn more about Eliot Church here and St. Paul Soup Kitchen here.