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small girl covering her eyes

Coming out of the Clergy Closet

small girl covering her eyes

Hiding in plain sight

Last year our oldest child started at a new child development center. Unlike the commercial daycare setting we’d ended up at during the first year of our new call, the school is small and intimate, priding itself on a very deep sense of community. It’s the kind of preschool where we receive regular invitations from teachers to be involved in the life of the classroom and regular invitations from fellow parents to birthday parties galore.

Like most young clergy couples entering a new church, town, and phase of life, I was hungry for relationships outside of our congregation and thrilled with the prospect of meeting other parents. There is a known camaraderie among parents of similarly aged children, right? Knowing that nearly all the attendees of our preschool hold a connection to the large university that is the foundation of our lovely little college town, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find some common ground?

But there it was. The question we clergy find ourselves staring in the face as we try to go about our daily lives. The question that traps us when we are young and single and are set up on a first date. The question we find ways to dodge when it comes from the person sitting next to us on the three-hour flight to a church conference. The question that confronts my husband and I when we are approached by a stranger at a cocktail party:

“What do you do?”

I hadn’t cringed at that question in awhile, but at our first preschool social (a dinosaur-themed birthday party) when it inevitably came up it was like I was twenty-two and out at a bar in Midtown Atlanta all over again, quickly muttering “I’m a pastor at the Presbyterian church” and moving the conversation right along. Driving home that day I engaged in a little self-confrontation…

“What was that all about?” I asked myself. It’s not as though I’m a seminarian or even a newly ordained minister. I’ve been at this awhile now and am comfortable in my pastoral identity. Call me to an emergency at the hospital? I’m there. Calm, cool, collected. Need to preach a sermon following a tragic event in the world? By the grace of God, I will. Yet for some reason this prayerfully forged identity becomes something I want to hide when I’m standing on the sidelines of the soccer field or the waiting room of the dance studio.

Eventually, I was able to identify at least a few reasons for this inclination to minimize my professional identity in social settings. The first is that there are very few places in my life where “pastor” is not my primary role. In the life of my own congregation the lines are beautifully blurred. The church I co-pastor with my husband has embraced our dual identities as pastors and parents as well as any clergy couple could ever hope or imagine. They understand when we have to reschedule meetings due to ear infections or trips to the pumpkin patch. They graciously smile when our children throw tantrums and green beans during the midweek fellowship supper. Yet our primary identity within our congregation is and will always be pastor, just as it should be. I love being their pastor, and simultaneously I long for a few small protected places in my life where I don’t have to be consciously in that role as I go about my business.

The second is that I don’t want “pastors’ kids”(PKS) to be my children’s primary identity. Or secondary. Or even tertiary (Yes, I had to look that up.). I often think our three little ones must be the most fortunate pastors’ kids in the world. My husband and I have now served two churches that take delight in them almost as much as we do. Yet, just like my own personal struggle, they are and always will be “the pastors’ kids”. Though they are blissfully unaware of this unique role at this point in their lives, I know the day is coming when they will put two-and-two together and realize that no one else’s parents are standing in the pulpit delivering the sermon each Sunday.

And so I want preschool, and later school, to be a place where they are just like every other kid. Where adults don’t feel the need to speak or act differently around them and where they aren’t expected to have an above-average knowledge of the Bible or be held to a higher standard of behavior. Perhaps these worries are all the result of my overly analytical imagination. However, generations of PKs who have gone before them might argue otherwise.

But back to preschool. I finally realized that, given that we live in as small of a town as we do, there is no escaping the reality of my identity. Wherever I am and wherever I go, I will always be both mom and pastor. So it was time to embrace this dual identity and stop glossing over it in conversation. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I came to this realization, something both wonderful and humbling happened.

Whether it was the princess-fashion-show-themed birthday party, the Thanksgiving feast, or simply walking through the school to figure out whether the class was on the playground or in the activities building, I can’t remember. But once again the question came up: “What do you do?” This time, it was from a mom I knew to be a professor at the university.

“My husband and I are the pastors at the Presbyterian church.” I said, this time without hesitation.

“We know lots of people in your church!” she said. “We go to the Episcopal church. Our priest is awesome. He came to our tailgate last week.

And just like that, it was over. No awkward silence. No “I didn’t-know-ministers-could-get-married.” or “Here are some reasons why my family hasn’t attended church in awhile.”

I’ve come out of the clergy-closet since then. In our preschool community it’s known that our kids have two preachers for parents. And guess what? I’m not sure anyone really cares. Teachers tell us when it hasn’t been a great day for the two year old. Or when we forgot to sign in the baby. Or when the four year old and her “best friend” had a dramatic falling out on the playground. Just like us, other parents understand that when we cross the threshold of the Child Development Center we all need a chance to shed our professional identities for a moment and tend to the little lives we, with the help of our extended childcare and extended families (including church families) are doing our best to nurture and grow.

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

From Shaking to Leaping

wtcco-dec-2016When I was preparing for my ordination, I was scared spitless to be in the pulpit and to preach in front of a congregation. My legs would start to shake at the beginning of the service, and I could barely stand. I did not come from a church that celebrated women pastors, so pastoral authority was hard for me to embrace. I realized that in order to survive a career in ministry without my legs shaking every time I preached, I needed something that would help me grow in confidence and establish my voice.

As unconventional as it might sound, l decided to try Scottish Highland Dance. Having studied the Scottish roots of the Presbyterian denomination, I thought Scottish Highland dance might be a perfect fit for me. Although most Scottish Highland dancers start when they are seven years old (or younger!), I found a teacher who believed that no one is ever too old to start dancing. At thirty-two, I joined a bunch of elementary school children who were learning the basics of the “Highland Fling.” Read more

The Bricks and Mortar of Family

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA) in Oconomowoc, WI

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA), Oconomowoc, WI

I have seen various versions of this meme going around Facebook, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, I generally just glanced past the posts without much thought. That is, until a friend posted this one. This one hit me differently.

When I look at this image, I am instantly transported into that building. Many of my earliest memories are of that place – hearing the story of how I took my first steps in that kitchen with its yellow flecked linoleum floor and countertops, anxiously awaiting the Sunday School year when I would finally be in the coveted room that had the huge rainbow mural on one wall, crawling around on the shuffleboard-covered floor to pick up the yarn scraps left by the quilting ladies, sitting four pews from the front on the pulpit side and looking at the sky blue dome behind the altar, practicing the phone number (which I knew before my home phone number) for the rare times I was home alone so that I had a way to contact my mom–a key volunteer before she became a staff member. This building was just as much my home as the house I lived in. Read more

Earbuds

Hearing and Being Heard: A Pastoral Response to Orlando

Earbuds

Listen

The Orlando shootings are not about me. Let’s start with that. I’m white, heterosexual (attracted to people of the opposite gender), and cisgendered (my internal gender identity matches the physical traits I was born with).

My privilege has socialized me to think that the news is always about me – I believe I can make the first comments, know something about it before anyone else, and choose to disregard it as rubbish when it doesn’t fit my worldview. Even when I actually know and experience nothing about it, my place in society gives me the privilege to believe that I am allowed to be the first to know something about the things that happen in our incredibly diverse world. Especially, my privilege assures me to know that I will be heard.

I confess this: being heard has been more important in my life than hearing. I do not listen enough.

Today, the Monday after the shootings, I realize how much I need to listen. I am yearning for the stories written by people in the communities most affected. I am looking for articles written by Latinx (a gender-neutral word form of Latino/Latina) people, posts generated from people who identify within the LGBTQIA community, blogs composed by Muslims who remind us that their religion is indeed about love, not hate. We need to hear that hatred within Islam is a perversion of Islam.

In the same way, hatred is a perversion of Christianity. God is about love.  Read more

A New Home In A New Land

Immigrants on deck of steamer

Immigrants on deck of steamer

Fifty-one years ago my maternal grandmother was sitting on a suitcase in Grand Central Station, crowds pressing in, sounds swirling around, smells lingering. Her new husband had gone off in search of some food for the final leg of their journey to their new home in Holland, MI. My grandpa clutched their one lone American coin, a quarter, and selected large navel oranges and some dark chocolates to share with his new bride – luxuries they did not have the opportunity to possess in a post-war Germany with limited opportunity, limited promise, limited security.

My grandparents’ family could not understand why they would want to leave their home, why they would want to start over. Starting over as an immigrant is humbling. Grandpa headed off to a third shift job at Krampton’s Factory each day. His advanced degree in agriculture was not of much use without his own farm. Grandma went to work at Lemmon Fresh Dry Cleaner and spent her days listening to English on the radio and from the customers, as she steamed, pressed, and pleated clothing.  Her degree in home economics was not of much use without her own home.  Read more

The Family of Faith

imageMy son is starting Sunday School. Or, rather, my SON is starting SUNDAY SCHOOL!!!! Somehow, my infant child has transformed himself into a fast talking, faster-running 4-year-old. He is all legs and arms and questions now. He’ll creep into our bed around six o’clock in the morning and whisper, “So, Jesus is in my belly?” I blink awake, half dreaming, and try to answer his questions as best I can.

You would think that I, ordained a decade, would feel competent to answer his theological questions. After all, for the first eight years of my ministry, I specialized in children’s ministry. There was nothing I liked better than leading Children’s Worship and talking with small children about God.

And yet, somehow, as I tell my 4-year-old about Jesus’ death and resurrection, as I assure him he does not need to fear death, as I try to explain how Jesus is still alive even though we cannot see him, I find myself craning my neck to see if there is anyone in the room who might tackle these questions with more grace and wisdom than I can.

Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Spare Some Change Edition

Gas Station

Dear Askie,

I’m a new pastor in a small farm town. The church is on the main road through town and I live in the parsonage next door. Across the street is a gas station/minimart. The previous pastor was known to help whomever knocked on the door with money for gas, food, etc., so I’m getting knocks from people looking for help. So far these people don’t live in town, they’re passing through, and five miles further down the highway is an enormous casino. The church members and my denominational leadership do not expect that I hand out money from my front door, and so far I have not. But I feel like a terrible person, the falsest of Christians, and the most hypocritical of pastors when I turn someone away. What do I do?

Sincerely,
Struggling

Read more

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Breaking the Mold of Community

An afternoon of watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

An afternoon of watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Being a young clergy woman sometimes feels like being a perpetual outsider. We find ourselves new to our congregations, new to our neighborhoods, and unlike most of the people in our clergy gatherings. Even after we’ve had the privilege of serving a congregation for a long time, we may know and love our people, but we are never fully one of the people. We are always slightly disoriented, trying to figure out who we are in our new circumstances, and searching for friends who can understand us and let us be ourselves.

Maybe that is why so many young clergy women seem so taken by The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, creators of 30 Rock.

Unbreakable centers on Kimmy, a sunny mid-westerner played to perfection by Ellie Kemper. Kimmy was one of the “Indiana Mole Women,” kidnapped and held in a bunker for fifteen years. After her rescue, she is interviewed on The Today Show in New York City, and decides to stay in New York instead of traveling back home to Indiana, where her identity is defined by her kidnapping. In New York, she can start fresh and build a life on her terms.

Kimmy is an outsider, not only of place, but of time. Her clothes and cultural references are firmly rooted in the late nineties. In fact, the show is populated with outsiders. Tituss Burgess plays Titus, Kimmy’s roommate, an actor who never quite gets a break. The great Karol Kane is their loopy, paranoid landlady. Kimmy takes a job as the personal assistant to Jane Krakowski’s trophy wife, Jacqueline Voorhees, who experiences both the shallowness and the grief of an isolated wealthy woman. Kimmy starts to form bonds with these characters, and together they become unlikely friends. The strength of this hodgepodge community helps Kimmy face her past, transform the relationships she has with the other Mole Women, and finally face her captor in court.

The cast is fairly diverse, or at least the characters are supposed to be. (Jane Krakowski is not the most believable Native American ever portrayed on screen.) This emphasizes themes of outsiders figuring out how to belong, but not everyone has been comfortable with either the Native American story line or the story line about Dong Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who is a potential love interest for Kimmy. Does his fear of the INS and job at a Chinese restaurant reinforce stereotypes or play with stereotypes we already have? (Kat Chow of NPR has a fascinating reflection on this.)

Of course, because this is a Carlock and Fey production, all of this intensity is leavened by joke after joke. Titus (a black man) finds New Yorkers treat him more generously when he is dressed as a terrifying werewolf than when he dresses like himself. Jacqueline’s dog is a breed that has had the poop literally bred out of them. Even Kimmy’s experience of being held in a bunker becomes the source of comedy. She ends up finding some of the coping skills she learned in captivity helpful to process ordinary life. (I may be guilty of testing out her method of jumping up and down and shouting “I’m not here! I’m not here!” as one way to cope with unpleasantness.) Kimmy is optimistic, but not stupid. She is naïve, but canny. We root for her, as do the writers of the show.

And through Kimmy’s optimism and stubbornness, even her outsider friends start to think more deeply about their own identities and take courageous steps. Titus auditions for more roles; Jacqueline divorces her unfaithful husband; Dong and Kimmy both work toward earning their GED.

Kimmy shows us fellow outsiders how to begin to be connected to those around us, even if we don’t belong, even if we will never fully belong. No one except her fellow former captives will ever fully relate to Kimmy, but she does not let that stop her from reaching out and creating a place for herself in her community. Maybe her courage and enthusiasm will encourage us to actually turn off Netflix and go out and make a life for ourselves wherever God has led us.