Posts

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Praying with Our Farmers

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Like many good ministry ideas, this one came about by accident.

I interned at two small, rural churches during my second year in seminary. At one of the churches – on my first Sunday there – the pastor invited me to the front of the sanctuary to introduce myself. He asked me to share two fun or interesting facts about myself. When put on the spot like this, I always seem to draw a blank and end up saying something weird. This time, I shared the fact that that when I was a kid my favorite toys were tractor figurines. What I said was absolutely true, but it probably would not have been all that interesting to the vast majority of people.

Only, I wasn’t talking to the majority of people: I was talking to farmers. It was probably the best thing I could have said to ingratiate myself with the people of this church. I was a local girl from another rural county about a half-hour away. I loved tractors, and I happened to be dating a dairy farmer (who is now my husband). They loved me. My internship went well, and I didn’t think about my embarrassing introduction again until about a year later.

Someone from that church called me up and asked if I’d be willing to lead worship early on a Sunday morning at an antique tractor show they were organizing, since they knew I really loved tractors. I immediately jumped at the opportunity because it seemed so unique. It wasn’t until I started planning that I realized I had potentially bitten off more than I could chew. What would the setting be like? How long should this service be? Would there be a microphone? What should I do about music? What exactly does one preach about at a tractor show? This final question was what I spent the most time worrying about. I wanted to say something relevant, but I was afraid that if I went with a Scripture passage with too much agricultural imagery I would either look like I was trying too hard, or I would show how much I don’t understand about agriculture when I tried to preach on it. Read more

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Communion in the City

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space. Read more

gravestones in a cemetery

Can You Ask Them If They’re Okay With a Woman?

gravestones in a cemetery

“Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

It was late morning on the Friday after Christmas.  It was one of what feels like only a small handful of days each year when I didn’t have anything really pressing on my to-do list, so I came into the church that morning determined to clean my office.  My time that day felt like a gift – it wasn’t claimed already by someone else, and so I pulled up some music and set about making my space feel, once again, like my own, which almost never takes priority for me.  It had occurred to me, as I walked in, that these are the kinds of days when disasters usually strike, but I dismissed that thought as quickly as it had arrived.

So when the call came in from the city office, it took me a minute to wrap my mind around what the woman on the other end was asking.  Someone needed a pastor, and they needed a funeral in less than two hours.  Wait, what?  Who buries the dead that quickly?  Or if it wasn’t so quick, why hadn’t they called yesterday, or the day before?  Oh, I see, their priest is suddenly unavailable, okay.  And they don’t speak much English.  And you say they’re African immigrants?  They attend the Orthodox Church.  Okay.  It’s for a 6-week-old baby?  Good God.  And just the burial.  Right, just some prayers.  Christian prayers.  They just need a Christian minister; any Christian minister.  Got it.  Okay.

I’m a Christian minister.  A Lutheran one, to be precise.  My church is the first one the city employee had called, and of course I said I was available.  To bury a baby on a moment’s notice for a grieving family on the worst day of their lives?  Can there be more holy work than this?

After I had taken down the few bits and pieces of information the city employee had about the family, I was about to hang up, when I remembered one last thing:

“Can you call the family back first?” I asked the city employee.  “Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

She scoffed.  I appreciated the guttural expression of support, and I knew what she meant – that this family was desperate for someone to meet this need, and I was both trained and willing to meet it – but still.  “It’s the worst day of their lives,” I said.  “I don’t know anything about their culture, and not enough about their religious beliefs.  Can you just call and make sure?”

She agreed.

She called back within three minutes, her voice sheepish and apologetic.  “You were right to ask,” she said.  “They said that they would much prefer a man.”

Read more

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

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

Harnessing Courage: A Review

harnessing-courage nov 2016Over the years, I have often wished that “regular” people better understood life with a significant disability. As an Episcopal priest who is completely deaf, I’ve struggled with the writing of authors who were able-bodied and exploring disability as a theological construct or something which needed to be overcome. As a hospital chaplain and a parish priest focused on pastoral care, I need something written from the inside, which described both the highlights and the lowlights of life with a significant disability, and which asked the reader to engage the author as an intellectual equal.

Laura Bratton’s book, Harnessing Courage: Overcoming Adversity with Grit and Gratitude, is an excellent entry into this category. The story of one young pastor’s journey into blindness and the world of disability resonated strongly with me, and it has the potential to fill that niche of dialogue with those who have no disability and who seek to understand. It will also be a useful tool to those who are beginning to work through a new diagnosis which may result in disability. Read more

Leaven

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Matthew 13:33

A fresh sourdough loaf made from the author’s starter, Sid.

A fresh sourdough loaf made from the author’s starter, Sid.

My mom baked bread when I was a young child. I can still remember the bread pans overflowing with honey-colored dough and the steam rising as she cut the first slice. But as I grew, and as our lives grew busier, somewhere along the way the hot loaves of honey wheat bread were replaced with loaves of cracked wheat from the grocery store. Still, the memories of my mother’s bread led me to want to try making bread myself. My own adventures in bread baking began in high school when my gadget-loving dad provided me with a bread machine. Although the bread from the machine was definitely tastier than the store-bought variety, I quickly lost interest in the process. I wanted more of a challenge, so I decided to make honey wheat bread the way my mom made it. The ingredient list was long: yeast, cottage cheese, honey, milk, and two kinds of flour. But it never called for leaven.

Though I was familiar with Jesus’ parable about leaven, at the time I didn’t understand that leaven was more than just Bible-speak for active dry yeast–the only kind of yeast I had known it in its scientifically isolated form. So my bread baking went on as usual until I happened upon a documentary about sourdough bread and the fermentation process used to make it. The documentary described the way that bread was made throughout the world for centuries before scientists were able to capture yeast and put it in a powdered form. I was mesmerized by the ancient bread-making practice that unfolded in the documentary, and I was determined to try it. Read more

Black silhouettes of a female and a male arguing on a grayscale background

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Haters Gonna Hate Edition

Black silhouettes of a female and a male arguing on a grayscale backgroundDear Askie,

I recently found myself in a tricky situation, and thought you might have helpful perspective on it. A while ago, I got together with some old high school friends and their significant others. One old friend has become a young clergywoman, which I think is great, although I identify as atheist. Yay for religious people being non-oppressive and feminist and stuff! However, the other friend’s spouse made repeated negative comments about religion and religious people. The person making the comments had experienced a lot of trauma at the hands of people who claimed to have been acting in the name of God (both spouses are LGBTQ). My clergy friend was very gracious, but the exchange still made me very uncomfortable. I tried to change the subject a few times, but I’ve been wondering if there was any other useful way I could have helped diffuse that situation or made my YCW friend feel more supported. I try to be an ally to religious folks, just like I try to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, but as a young professional in a left-leaning city, I hear anti-religious sentiments much more often than I hear homophobic ones, and I don’t always know what to say. What advice do you have about how I could have supported my friend? What I can say when people talk smack about religion?

Thanks,
Your Friendly Atheist Ally

Read more

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

Loving The Young Clergy Women Project

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

The July 2016 Conference of The Young Clergy Women Project, Boston University

A few weeks ago, my family and I made our way down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in search of a room in Boston University’s School of Theology where I would share the next three days with a hundred clergy women from many denominations. I was, uncharacteristically, a little nervous. What if I didn’t know anyone? What if no one cared that I was there? What if they were annoyed that I was there, since technically I had already graduated from The Young Clergy Women Project eight days earlier?

As soon as I entered the room where we were gathering, my fears melted away. I spotted a couple of familiar faces from Facebook, then a few more, and then I ran into one of my favorite UCC colleagues and her face reminded me why I’d come to The Project in the first place. I came for the friendships and for the professional bonds that connect us as women in ministry in a world that both relies on women for emotional and household labor AND undervalues the worth of our work at home and in the workplace. I came for the fierceness, the laughter, and the tears. I came for the culture where finding excellent child care is a normal part of conference planning, and where mamas hand off their babies to any willing set of hands. I came for the worship and the workshops, for the time spent lingering over meals and the time spent laughing over drinks. (I came also, it must be fairly said, for the swag.)

I did not expect how much this group would mean to me. Read more