One is a Lutheran pastor who pedals a sleek, speedy, three-wheeled enclosed bike called a velomobile.
Another is a bike-commuting Baptist minister who writes blog posts about how churches should encourage cycling.
And then there’s the seminary student who thinks using his bike instead of a car makes him more likely to be a good Samaritan.
These are just a few of the pedaling pastors, holy rollers who cycle religiously because they believe that tending to their flock on two wheels is good for their health, good for their congregations and good for the Earth.
“It’s really become a spiritual practice for me,” said Tyler Sit, who is pastor of New City Church, a small United Methodist church in south Minneapolis that focuses on environmental justice. Sit doesn’t own a car. He uses his bike and public transit for all of his transportation, in part because his church sees climate change as a moral as well as an environmental crisis.
“Biking is as much of an act of faith as planting a church or protesting injustice,” said Sit, 33.
As bike evangelists, these clergy members encourage their congregations to get out of their cars with bike-to-church days and bike-blessing events. They take cross-country bike tours to raise money for church projects. And they see the “bikeable church” as a way for houses of worship to be more connected and relevant to their communities.
Melissa Melnick Gonzalez, pastor of the Tapestry church in Richfield, rode her bike from the Twin Cities to the Gulf of Mexico last year to honor the memory of her son, who died in 2017. This year, Gonzalez, 52, plans to bike from Lake Itasca to the Twin Cities to raise money to provide bikes to kids.
“Being on bikes somehow opens up an opportunity to share and gives hope and love,” she said.
G. Travis Norvell, a self-described “gospel-centered liberal” who preaches about Christian social justice, started biking seriously after being challenged by his 13-year-old daughter.
One day his daughter asked him, “Dad, what are you willing to give up so others can have more?”
Norvell, pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, sold the car he was driving and now relies on a bike and public transportation to get to church and to pastoral appointments.
He’s also started blogging and tweeting about biking and pastoring as the Pedaling Pastor. He’s advocated for bike parking at churches, and writes about his “Clergy” license plate for his bike, why he bikes in the winter, trying to set a record for most clergy members on bikes at a Baptist convention and conducting a blessing for the 30 Days of Biking pledge.
Every year, he makes bike blessing spoke cards to be passed out to church members and at bike shops. Last year’s version had a picture of Pope Francis because the Catholic church leader once encouraged seminarians to resist the allure of fast cars and instead get around on bikes.
This year’s spoke card read: “May your wheels always spin true, may your brakes always grab, may drivers always see you, & may the smile only riding a bike can evoke always remain on your face. Happy riding.”
Norvell sees biking as a small way to make a positive change in our lives.
“Every now and then the woman who chose to marry me comments, ‘You think bikes are the answer to everything, don’t you?’ ” he wrote on his blog. “Sometimes I do. Indeed we need structural change, we need massive changes to the way [we] run our economy and lives. But I think we need some kind of small individual/community gains to inspire and generate greater gains.”
Being a good steward of the Earth is part of the reason why David Shinn, an associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, uses a bike to make work trips.
“Creation care is very much a part of my faith,” said Shinn, 48.
His church supports bike-commuting staffers by having showers, bike parking, a bike repair station and bike-to-church days, said Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor at Westminster, who also uses a bike to commute to work and call on worshipers.
“My parish gets a kick out of seeing their pastor come in with a bike helmet,” said Hart-Andersen, 66. “Among our staff members it’s a practice that’s increasing over the years.”
Christopher Hagen, a Lutheran pastor from Plymouth, said he frequently meets strangers who ask about his velomobile, a three-wheeled recumbent bike with a fully enclosed, streamlined fiberglass body.
“It’s just a natural way to talk to people,” said Hagen, 62.
Paul Rosenwinkel, 27, a recent graduate of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, tries to bike wherever he goes. “That’s definitely part of my faith,” he said, “being able to see my neighbors face to face rather than through a car window.”
As a bike commuter, he’s more likely to notice people he passes on the street and it’s easier than in a car to stop, lean the bike against a tree and be the good Samaritan if someone needs help.
“Relying solely only on automobiles for our transportation needs limits our ability to see faces, empathize and make connections with one another,” Norvell has written. But walking, biking or sharing space on public transit “cause us to be more trusting, more hopeful and more empathetic.”
“You’re just present in the world,” said Greg Meyer, a 62-year-old bike-commuting pastor at Fabric, a Lutheran church in Minneapolis. “You see people. You see their lives, their houses.”
In addition to being able to help individuals, many biking ministers see it as a way to improve the health of the whole community. That was the idea behind the Bicycles, Faith and Equity Workshop put on in 2016 by Sara Joy Proppe, founder of Proximity Project, a St. Paul business that educates churches on promoting goodness with urban design.
“Some major premises of the Christian faith are loving the poor and seeking the welfare of the city,” Proppe wrote in an article on how churches can be bike-friendly. “I suggest that one way to love the poor is to advocate for equitable access to bicycles, to opportunities to learn bike skills, and to safe bicycle paths in every community.”
Many biking clergy members work in dense city environments and want to be more relevant to younger urban residents and explore sustainable neighborhoods, where churches are within biking distance from parishioners.
“If church life simply becomes another long commute, it challenges the idea of church as community,” said Sean Benesh, a Portland, Ore. urban studies professor and author of “The Bikeable Church: A Bicyclist’s Guide to Church Planting.”
Pastors also cite personal benefits to traveling on two wheels. For some, biking is a way to save money on a lean salary. Others like the health benefits, especially in a sedentary job where many gatherings are centered around food.
“The physical exercise part of it is very important,” said Eric Walbolt, 61, a long-distance bike tourer and senior pastor at Servant of Christ Lutheran Church in Champlin.
Pastoring also can be a stressful job, one in which it’s common to encounter people undergoing extreme grief.
“I get on a bike and I pedal it out,” Norvell said.
Being on a bike, feeling the rhythm of the pedals and the heart, can be an opportunity for reflection, a time to mull over a sermon or connect with nature.
“I think it’s definitely a lot more spiritual than when I’m in my car,” said Scott Woller, pastor of Corner Church in the North Loop area of Minneapolis. “Driving across downtown, there’s very little joy.”
“It’s a meditative time,” said Hagen of his velomobile journeys. “My mind starts clearing. I call it prayer, talking to God or letting God speak.”
“You just feel the load lightening,” said Charles Handren, a biking pastor of Glory of Christ Fellowship in Elk River, Minn.
Handren, 52, is riding from Minneapolis to Memphis this summer to raise money for a church-building program.
“I just feel connected to God more,” he said. “Even when I was a kid, there was something spiritual about biking to me.”