Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Life at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

In Seminary, a professor had a “Dead Church Swear Jar.” If we said local congregations, denominations, or the Church universal was dying or dead, we had to put money in the jar. The point was that God is still alive and moving – and that will never change.

Yes, God is still alive and moving. Our rapidly-growing community was recently named one of the top 10 hottest neighborhoods in the nation. Everyone wants to live here, visit here, eat here, and enjoy the fun urban vibe we have. But very few people want to worship here. My own congregation – the largest protestant church in the neighborhood – is stuck at 50 people who are dying at a rate of 15% per year.

Statistically, in 5 years, the congregation will cease to exist. It is hard to think of the neighborhood churches – who aren’t engaged in mission and ministry and simply try to take in enough money to keep the lights on – as anything but “dead.”

But I’m an eternal optimist, and I refuse to go down without a fight. I began dreaming of ways to grow my congregation. I tried the relational model. I tried flyers, social media, websites, videos, free ice cream. You name it, I tried it. But I had minimal success. Visitor after visitor would approach me after worshipping with us for a week or a month and tell me, “I love you and your sermons, but these people! I just can’t do it.” They looked around the congregation and didn’t see anyone who looked like them. They saw that one third of the congregation is in their 90s. It didn’t matter that 15 kids were running around. They only saw a 1940’s church and couldn’t see themselves as part of that.

Our neighborhood, Hampden, is rapidly gentrifying. Thousands of homes are being built within one mile of the church. The older, blue collar mill workers stayed in the neighborhood after the mills closed, after the shops were boarded up and the houses were falling down. About ten years ago, a resurgence began. The artists came. The restaurants came. The shops came. And with these things came the college-educated – most with doctorate degrees and six-figure salaries – displacing the long-time residents who never graduated high school and barely survive on social security.

It’s a tale of two neighborhoods. To change Sunday morning worship to reflect the changing community would only remove the last thing the “Old Hampden” people could hold onto as being theirs. Yet, there is no future in this style of worship and approach to ministry. We needed something new. Read more

Of Veils and Virgins: My Life with the Bees

Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy; mercy as shown chiefly towards the poor, that thou mayest treat them as sharers in common with thee in the produce of nature, which brings forth the fruits of the earth for use to all.

-Saint Ambrose, Patron Saint of Beekeepers

One of the earliest moments of me ever captured on film is a photograph of me and my father tending to his bee hives. In the photo, my father (who must have been about the age I am currently) is decked out in his full bee-keeping suit—long leather gloves, netting that covered his whole body, and the all-important beekeeper’s veil— that kept the agitated bees who assume, rightfully, that he was there to take their honey, from stinging him. I, on the other hand, am about three years old, in a light t-shirt, and the only protection I seem to have had is the hand-held smoke pot that kept the bees calm by simulating a forest-fire.

Dad had, no doubt, employed me to work the small bellows on the pot so he could have his hands free to inspect the hive. For my part, I am smiling, apparently oblivious to the danger that my lack of veil put me in. These bees were my friends and I knew no fear. Even the honey they made was called “Hilly-Honey” as a tribute to my fearlessness with them. And though my father could be accused of being reckless with my body’s well-being, he was anything but with my soul’s—teaching me that we kept bees because we are the stewards of this earth and are to care for the least of God’s creatures. Thus began my life as a beekeeper.

To keep bees is to be invited to help build a kingdom.

The keeper and the bees labor side by side tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, building homes, and pollinating the world – an awful lot like being a part of a church. In fact, the link between bees and the church is almost as old as Christendom itself, including everything from theology to candles. At the height of the season there can be upwards of 35,000 bees in a healthy hive and they are all family—mostly all female, in fact. They share the same mother—their monarch, the queen—and their common life together has long been lauded as a model for Christian community. Read more

#BlackGirlMagic-alMinister

Kaji S. Douša

“Just make it magical,” I said.

I looked at the makeshift learning space: a hallway, really. This was where our church would be asking our children to go in-depth about Jesus for the next year and a half, while we completed our all-encompassing construction project.

Everything had to be added to the space; it came with nothing. But, quite quickly, it began to host the ragtag miscellany that inhabits all spaces that are not carefully controlled. It became a storage room, a hallway, and a place to learn about Jesus. Some of this could change—we could be more disciplined about where we put things—but some was simply the reality of where we were. Yet if the children were asked to do this, then the least we could do would be to make the place… magical. So we designed something exciting and beautiful that might have been too difficult to pull off in a larger space. Magic could make this work.

If only we had a wand to make everything else magic. Read more

Single Sabbath

I’m sure it’s not what our church leadership intends, but I have developed a reflexive twitch of annoyance whenever I hear the words “Sabbath rest” or “self-care.” I’m not a martyr pastor who thinks the church can’t exist without me – my ego isn’t healthy enough for that. I just believe we need to reframe the conversation so that our conversations about Sabbath and self-care reflect the spiritual diversity of our clergy siblings.

Early in my ministry at my first church, my senior pastor suggested that my Sabbath day should be spent in silence and reflection because I spend the rest of my week being a talkative extrovert. I took the kind hint and stopped chatting with him as often, but it also made me think about how we talk about the practice of Sabbath. When I attend clergy gatherings, conferences, or annual conferences, they often talk about ways to deepen our spiritual practices. We hear stories of silent retreats, days spent hiking alone listening to God, setting aside time for prayer and meditation in silence and solitude. All beautiful, important parts of a well-rounded spiritual life, all assuming that I am drained by the time I spend around other people.

I think the unique solitude of singleness is sometimes lost in the larger conversations about the loneliness that clergy often face. Read more

What I Really Want: Christmas Letters from Young Clergy Women

Humorous YCW Christmas letters bring comic relief during a time of stress.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my Young Clergy Women colleagues gave to me: laughter and solidarity.

A particular brand of stress befalls those of us who are working for Jesus as the world celebrates his birth. It’s a bit like working the roller coaster line at an amusement park. The folks who climb into the cars and buckle up get to scream and raise their hands as they enjoy the thrill of the ride. But for the person who checks to make sure the safety bars are locked in place (an important job—but a monotonous one), the roller coaster loses some of its luster.

And so it is that for many young clergy women, Advent and Christmas are filled with…wonder? No. Joy? Not exactly. Peace? Not even close. Try: to-do lists. Long to-do lists and longer hours at work fill our ever-shortening days, not to mention the calendar-crowding holiday parties and social events we’re expected to attend in our “official” capacity as clergy. In the midst of the holiday hustle, we struggle to find quality time with our own families even as we are setting the stage for other families to worship together. We yearn to behold the baby in the manger—to rest and reflect and contemplate the one who called us into this life of service—and yet, his coming means that there are liturgies to plan, tinsel angel wings to repair, homilies to write, candles with plastic wax catchers to order.

Most of us wouldn’t trade this holy work. We wouldn’t trade visiting families who are experiencing grief and tragedy that are somehow magnified by the sparkling lights of Christmas. We wouldn’t trade thoughtfully preparing worship services that offer a space for the people in the pews to sing with angels and kneel beside shepherds and wise men.

But while we would not have Advent and Christmas any other way, we need humor to keep going. So for these seasons that come bearing both good tidings and great stress, er, I mean, joy, The Young Clergy Women Project offers a fun (and educational!) list—What I Really Want for Christmas: Christmas Letters from Young Clergy Women. (Names and minor details have been omitted or changed to protect the innocent.) Read more

The author and her neighbor, Penny

Spiritual Friendship

The author and her neighbor, Penny

The author and her neighbor, Penny

Tucked among the many things my seminary education neglected to mention was the truth that ministry is, more often than not, a ministry of presence in a particular place. When we are called to serve a congregation, more often than not, we must choose to leave behind a community and a neighborhood in order to make a home in a new place. This mobile lifestyle poses a quandary: when all of our neighbors are church members (or potential members), how do we develop authentic friendships? How do young clergy women make the distinction between who is a friend and who isn’t? Does that distinction matter?

In the small church ministry to which I have been called, this question is alive and real. I serve a small church in the middle of a quaint borough in the heart of a once-rural county oozing with character and history. There are only a thousand people who live here with me, and because we are the only church in our borough, there are many folks who see my role as the de-facto pastor of everyone, not just the folks who warm the pews. Because of this expectation, when people I barely know see me on the street, they call me pastor, vicar, or chaplain.  What they don’t call me is neighbor.

When everyone is my parishioner, and nobody is simply my neighbor, ministry can get lonely. I begin to feel that the ministry of presence in a particular place is a vocation to live a guarded life, one marked by sidelong glances–and checked, rechecked, and hedged conversation–because who know who might be listening?

Because of the complicated nature of this role as pastor of the borough, that I thank God daily for my neighbor Penny. Read more

Not So Silent: Christmas Worship with Children

Dearest church people,

Get ready. In two days it’ll be Christmas Eve. Your congregation will welcome people in for one of the biggest nights of the year. You may be blessed with an overrun of visitors, and I hope some of those visitors will be children and their parents.

In the spirit of preparation (it is Advent, after all), I write to you with my qualifications as both a minister who has specialized in children and youth and, for the last few years, become a pew-sitter; as a minister without a full time clergy position, I have done more pew sitting than worship leading.

And this season, I suspect, is the hardest of my pew sitting: I currently have three lovely children, and we’re doing all the ages and stages right now. The oldest, at 10, is in that phase where she can follow along in church, but sometimes needs a reminder to do so. Sometimes, this nudge results in a little preteen, mother-daughter drama. The five-year-old wants to move. He has the energy of a Pentecostal, which is perhaps a bit more than your average grown up Lutheran. (We currently attend a Lutheran church.) And the two-year-old has recently learned that she has pipes, so she will deliver quite the yelp if someone takes what she believes to be her crayon. She’s also highly attuned to the Holy Spirit, occasionally making a dash for the aisle because she thinks that music is for dancing. And when it’s time to go forward to receive communion, she has a hard time waiting her turn. Sundays in our pew are sort of like wrestling a squirmy pet monkey, all while juggling hymnals and Bibles. Add candles on Christmas Eve (our church has one service, at 7pm, well past the littlest one’s bedtime), and it’s going to be anything but a meditative experience for me. Read more

The Crown and the Collar

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom

The Imperial State Crown

“Elizabeth Mountbatten has been replaced by Elizabeth Regina, and the two Elizabeths will often be in conflict,” Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) tells the new sovereign in a remarkably un-comforting letter of condolence, “But the fact is, the Crown must win. The Crown must always win.”

“The Crown,” Netflix’ big-budget series examining the life and reign of Elizabeth the Second (Claire Foy), is a lavish production. The choice of title is significant: it’s a work about Elizabeth as she grows into – or kicks against – the weight of “the Crown.” For me, the series comes most alive in the moments where Elizabeth is struggling to work out how to be herself, and what that self is becoming, under the influence of her new role. There’s a striking moment in episode five, as Elizabeth prepares for her delayed coronation, where she tries the crown on for the first time, and looks at herself in the mirror. Foy’s expression reminded me strongly of my own, the first time I tried a clerical collar on. The director’s shot choices keep us conscious of the fact that Elizabeth is a slight young woman – wearing the crown, keeping the orb and sceptre steady during her coronation, is a physical effort for her, and that too may resonate for clergywomen serving churches with a tradition of vesting. At least Elizabeth doesn’t have to contend with a chasuble that’s long enough to trip her!

The central conflict, between one’s integrity as an individual, and the demands of the role one is placed in, is relevant to all of us in ministry. Read more

Called from the Shadows

This past summer, I explored Rome for an afternoon during a layover, and I prioritized visiting the San Luigi dei Francesi church where three paintings by Caravaggio hang. I became fascinated by one of Caravaggio’s paintings there in particular: “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” It depicts Matthew 9:9, which says, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”

For the last decade, I’ve frequently drawn upon the tradition of Lectio Divina but less so upon Visuo Divina, the practice of prayerfully considering an image or visual representation in order to experience the divine. I am therefore grateful that God shook me out of the haziness of my playing tourist on a humid August day. In the midst of my fatigue and my feelings of being overwhelmed (so little time in Rome; so much to see!), the Holy Spirit invited me to stop and consider the truth of this painting by Caravaggio.

On the right side of the painting, Jesus gestures towards Matthew. Bathed in light, Matthew points to himself, expressing surprise. I, too, was surprised. Read more

Finding the Missing Peace

ministry-lab-dec-2016

Members of Missing Peace make school kits.

Can a person worship while doing gymnastics or talking about science? How about walking a labyrinth or making school kits for refugee kids? While many of my young clergy women sisters might easily nod affirmatively to these questions, it’s fair to say that most traditional worship services don’t include these activities. Two years ago, I began asking, “Why not?”

In both the Old and New Testaments, scripture repeatedly cries out to us to love God with heart, mind, and strength–and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So, why not? Why not take the double love commandment at its word, and form a worshiping community around a rotation of spiritual, cerebral, physical, and service-oriented worship experiences? As I was discerning my call to the new kind of worshiping community that would become Missing Peace, my “why not?” was met with objections: Why not? Because “it would be hard,” and “where would you meet,” and “how will you come up with so many different activities,” and “aren’t you making it harder for people to connect with so much variation?”

Despite all the questions, I knew in my bones that God was calling me into ministry, and I knew that my ministry setting wasn’t going to look like my father’s before me (robe, pulpit, choir). Read more