The gospel according to Will

With a passion for theater, social justice and the teachings of Jesus, William Critzman is a modern minister with a mission rooted in timeless ideals
By Mark Nimar

In New York City, modes of worship are as varied and diverse as the city itself. Some Upper West Siders may reserve Sundays for brunch or SoulCycle, others for a weekly church service. For the Reverend William H. Critzman, 39, the new senior minister at West End Collegiate Church, Jesus’s messages of love, compassion and equality have never been more relevant, particularly when it comes to politics, social justice or the arts. But while Critzman has immense love for old biblical teachings, he is also breaking new ground as the first openly gay senior minister to serve at Collegiate Church in the organization’s nearly 400 year history. With his youth and fresh perspective, Critzman is poised to attract a whole new group of worshippers to the congregation.

Straus News sat down with Critzman last week to talk about his background in show business, holding our nation’s leaders accountable, and why he wants you to come to church.

How did you become a minister? What called you to the profession?

Well, my background was as a theater producer and arts executive. I worked in London, San Francisco and New York. And about 10 years ago, [at the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when I was working as a fundraiser for the arts], everyone was talking about the importance of being interdisciplinary in our approach to the arts. We needed to look at what it means to be in the arts, and we were talking about how we were not doing a very good job of incorporating other disciplines into our profession. So I started looking at some seminary programs to do a master’s in the arts and religion, so I could try to bring theology and art together. In the 20th century, the left claimed the arts, and the right claimed religion, and I wanted to put the two together. One thing I know is that no one walks on the stage of the Met without saying some sort of prayer; every act of creating art is an act of faith.

[When I entered seminary in 2010], I swore I’d never work in a church. But over the past [six years] at the First Presbyterian Church downtown in Greenwich Village, my sense of call developed and I was beginning to feel this sense of change ... And then I got a call from West End Collegiate’s search committee.

I told them, “I think I am wildly unqualified for what it is you’re looking for. I think you’re looking for someone who’s more traditional than me.” But we had a conversation over three months and seven different rounds of interviewing. I met with 32 different people, and walking into each space, I fell so in love with the search committee, and by the time we got to the final rounds in June, I felt that we could do something new and amazing with the Upper West Side, and that feeling was palpable in my body. So far, it’s been a really great and energetic experience.

What’s your favorite thing about the ministry?

It’s all about the people. I came into the ministry with these macro ideas: public religion, public theatre. And the more I got into the ministry, you learn that people have lives, and show up on your doorstep, and are hungry. I learned that I needed more tools for how to listen to people, and what they are saying. My favorite part is to hear people, to connect the dots, to connect them with people around them and their families. To teach them about what it means to be a human, and be with each other, and be with creation.

The life and teachings of Jesus may seem so far removed from modern life. How are they relevant to the present day?

I think the simplicity of Jesus’s teachings is so relevant in our modern day: Love god. Let love be the guide. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. These are easy teachings. Let us love, and just love each other. That means Black Lives Matter. That means LGBT individuals should have equal rights. That means women should have a seat at the table for making decisions about [their bodies and their lives]. That means we’re not going to name-call people, we’re not going to use profanity. We’re not going to disrespect people. And when we see that in our leaders, we’re gonna call it out. Jesus had a history of holding leaders accountable, calling people out of old cemented ways of living, and calling them into new life.

Right now, the United States is going through a turbulent, and some may say dangerous political time. What is religion’s role, and how can it help heal the country?

I think one of religion’s chief roles is to be an arbiter of morality, dignity and respect. If you look at [the core of the Abrahamic faiths] — Judaism, Islam Christianity — they have [dignity and respect for] each person as a spark of the divine. Separation of church and state is important. But [religion] does have something to say about how we engage in debate, how we talk to one another, and how we engage in disagreement. How we help that arc bend towards justice. I think religion knows about a sense of history. We bring the connective tissue. If we preached the headlines every day, we’d never run out of material. But religion reminds people that the headlines of the day are part of a bigger picture. We have to bring in the [wider] landscape. We can’t be ashamed of our faith; we have to let it guide our life, and how we love one another.

What’s your favorite section of the bible? Why?

My favorite book in the bible is the Gospel of Mark. I think it contains everything the New Testament needs to tell us. It’s the shortest of the gospel. The entire Gospel can be read in 55 minutes. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately”. He uses it 44 times. And this sense of immediacy, it speaks to the call to make the world change now. The Gospel of Mark was written [around] CE 70 when Rome is on a full assault of Jerusalem.

And when it is bleak, I think about this in our New York lives. This is like September 12, 2001. The city is under attack, and we don’t know why. We are in a state of trauma and grief, and the one way we comfort each other is by telling stories. We look to a story that might bring us hope.

For someone coming to West End Collegiate Church for the first time who does not have a relationship with God or has never attended church, what could they expect?

When you walk into West End Church on a Sunday morning, the congregation takes tradition and worship very seriously. They take hospitality seriously. People are dressed in all sorts of different things: some people come in jeans, some people come in sweats, it’s all fine. But as the community gathers, there’s this sense of informality that turns into something very formal. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s holy. Then suddenly, an acolyte walks down the aisles. The service is beautiful. We have stunning musicians, and if music is a way for you to connect to the divine, come. The kids also have a wonderful energy before going to Sunday school. What you’re going to find here is a community. There’s 150 of us every morning ... That sense of belonging does not happen anywhere else, that sense of caring. It helps piece together the fragmentation of our lives.