Your Seminary Course Catalog (A Few Additions)

I believe I received a wonderful theological education at the two Baptist seminaries I attended (Eastern–now Palmer, and Central). I can decline Greek verbs (OK, I could at one time), put Paul in his historical context, explain the prophetic tradition and even address difficult biblical texts. I can do crisis counseling, pre-marital counseling, spiritual counseling, and “I think you need a real counselor” counseling. I can explain the theology behind each part of the worship service. I can write and preach a fine sermon – would you like narrative or expository?

Still, there are times in my ministry when I find myself at a loss – events and circumstances for which I am sadly unprepared. So without disparaging the good work of my many fine seminary professors, I would like to suggest a few additions to the course catalog: Read more

Images from “In Whose Image?”

Over 70 young clergy women from all over the world gathered in Nashville last week for the sixth Young Clergywomen Conference. High lights include our wonderful speaker, Dr. Nyasha Junior; worship that was at turns beautiful, real, well-planned, and spontaneous; our first time providing on-site childcare; and, of course, fun and bonding with fellow young clergywomen.

After you see these pictures, we know you’ll want to mark your calendar: our next conference will be held the week of July 6-10 in Minneapolis, MN.

Photos provided by Kelly Boubel-Shriver; Sarah Kinney Gaventa; Nyasha Junior; Julie Jensen; Elizabeth Grasham-Reeves; Kerry Waller Dueholm; and Jessica Herren.

Even before the conference, the fellowship begins. A group of YCWs from Sweden road-tripped with two American YCWs from Pennsylvania, and stopped at the home of another YCW in Virginia.

Even before the conference, the fellowship begins. A group of YCWs from Sweden road-tripped with two American YCWs from Pennsylvania, and stopped at the home of another YCW in Virginia.

A central worship space for the conference, with objects reminding us of our identity, made in God's image.

A central worship space for the conference, with objects reminding us of our identity, made in God’s image.

Our conference presenter, Nyasha Junior.

Our conference presenter, Nyasha Junior.

Close attention to our presenter.

Close attention to our presenter.

A prayer table allows participants to pray for each other throughout the conference.

A prayer table allows participants to pray for each other throughout the conference.

Our first ever on-site conference childcare allowed women with young children to attend, many assisted by wonderful partners.

Our first ever on-site conference childcare allowed women with young children to attend, many assisted by wonderful partners.

An ambitious group of YCWs gather for a little extra-curricular Zumba during the conference.

An ambitious group of YCWs gather for a little extra-curricular Zumba during the conference.

The unexpected occurs: a worship service in a nail salon, including manicures and pedicures.

The unexpected occurs: a worship service in a nail salon, including manicures and pedicures.

Old friends meet new babies.

Old friends meet new babies.

This is what 70-odd young women clergy look like.

This is what 70-odd young women clergy look like.

 

The Freedom to Celebrate Independence

fireworksJuly 4 strikes fear into the hearts of many young American pastors. Often, our seminary training included some cautionary tales about taking care to make sure that a secular holiday not overtake worship and and blur the lines between love of God and love of country. Some congregations agree with this idea. Others do not. (And then, of course, there is the eternal question: do you note the occasion the Sunday immediately before or after July 4th?) Controversy ensues, and you have to make a choice: is this one of the things you are willing to spend your pastoral capital on? There’s a pretty good chance that this is one of the first areas of ministry in which you may have to reach some sort of compromise, however small or subtle.

Gathered from the wisdom of members of the Young Clergywoman Project, here are some of the options pastors and congregations have crafted.

A Special Service

Some churches have a separate service, or an annual Sunday tradition to celebrate Independence Day. One of our member’s churches does a special service on July 4th in the morning, which satisfies the needs of those to whom this is most important.

Another church, in celebrating their 150th anniversary this year, had already planned a special service early in July using the liturgy as it would have been 150 years ago. This young clergywoman writes: “We didn’t PLAN it to fall near July 4 but since it does I’m taking that as our ‘patriotic duty’ and that’s all we’re doing.”

There’s also the option of crafting something new and different. “We just had our 2nd annual ‘American Voices’ service. It is a ‘lessons and carols’ type service with readings and music that has shaped our spiritual heritage.”

Slightly Subversive Preaching

While these may be some of the hardest sermons to write, it is possible to carefully craft a sermon that is respectful of appropriate patriotism, while still calling people to think deeply about the relationship between faith and nationality.

One pastor shared with us a sermon on Galatians 5:15-26, in which she reflected on the theme of freedom in our Christian lives.

Psalm 146 has also been a great preaching text for another pastor, as a way to point out that our ultimate trust is not “in princes” but in God. (This text also works well after an election season that has left your congregation a bit split.)

It doesn’t hurt to be brave, either. Another of our members plans to talk about immigration reform and the concept of citizenship this Sunday.

Often, if you take care with these sermons to speak respectfully about varying opinions, you may be surprised that those you’s have assumed would be offended compliment you on addressing the issue, respecting their position, and even being patriotic. (Freedom of speech, after all!)

It’s About the Music

In the midst of our discussion about the 4th, one woman made this very insightful remark: “For most of my folks it boils completely down to the music not at all what I say. They want to sing the America songs.” Church is one of the last places many people have a chance to sing as a community. They may just want to sing the songs.

So some of us simply throw in a few of the “America Songs.”

But we’ve also found some favorites to add, which seem to have a slightly more hearty theology in their texts: “Lift Every Voice and Sing;” “This Is My Song;” and even “This Land Is Your Land,” which, it turns out, may have had some religious connotations in an early draft.

And don’t forget about verses you didn’t know existed: check out additional verses of the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”) that make special mention of information specialists, nurses, military families, and astronauts. It might be worth it just to sing this line in church some year, “Oh hear is when we seek thy grace for those who fly through outer space.”

Get Out of Town

Some pastors handle the dilemma of the day by getting out of town: it’s a vacation week, and one of the few when we clergywomen can leave without missing a religious holiday with our congregations. And while this strategy means that a pastor can simply pass the buck for the Sunday, one woman came up the rather creative solution of inviting a friend who is a former worship professor to lead worship in her church.

Grin and Bear It

And, as with many things in ministry, you may find that this is an occasion to remind yourself that, in the end, Jesus will figure it out. It’s not all about us. And we can grin and bear it and assume that God will forgive us and our congregations if we don’t get this one entirely right. It can be hard for this Sunday not to become a battle between your pastoral ego and your congregation’s traditions and desires. It may take time to change both their hearts and yours. And, anything could happen.You could, as one of our members had happen, have a congregation member who stands up during worship and proclaims that this is a good day for everyone to join in saying the pledge.

We all know the solution to that: you smile, you love your people, you put your hand over your heart, and you pray fervently that you remember the words, because your microphone is on.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Dribble and Dunk: A Practical Guide to Baptismal Logistics

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There’s no way around it: ministry is a career and calling that involves a strange assortment of skills, not the least of which is the logistics of baptism.

Whether your tradition baptizes infants, young children, teens, or adults; whether you sprinkle, pour, or immerse; the practical implications are mind boggling. Even if you had a seminary worship professor who insisted on a full “wet-run” in class, there’s something helpful in this wealth of advice gathered from a group of young clergywomen.

You’ll need water. More than one pastor has whipped the lid off a small font mid-worship to discover that no one bothered to fill it. And it may be easier to tell if a large baptistry is filled, but don’t take anything for granted. Make it a pre-worship habit to check your font. If you pour water into a font from a pitcher as part of the liturgy, practice beforehand, so that you know how much water your font can take. Experiment with water temperature: warm water will be less of a shock to a baby, but how warm the water should be when you put it in the font or pitcher will depend on how long the water will be sitting in the font.

Babies can smell fear. Be confident. You may find a fussy baby trick that works for you: one woman’s mentor taught her to cradle the baby and slip his close arm between your arm and your torso. She swears this makes the baby curious about where his arm went and distracts from any fussiness. Another woman baptizes babies belly down, so the baby can see the water and her reflection. She also recommends bouncing the baby to the rhythm of “Buffalo Soldier.” Don’t be ashamed if a really fussy baby needs to stay with a parent, godparent, or sponsor while you baptize. (Just remember to stand alongside whomever is holding the baby, rather than across the font: cross-font baptism frequently result in a baby craning his neck to look at the pastor, which can result in the poor thing getting a flood of water back into his nose.) And affirm for parents that infant baptism is always a bit chaotic, appropriately so, since the theology of those who practice it reminds us that some of us come to God not so much by our own choice, but perhaps kicking and screaming.

Be ready for the unexpected. Even if you’re an experienced baby-snuggler, fancy baptismal gowns can be voluminous and slippery. And, just as babies can smell fear, they can also smell breast milk. If you happen to be lactating, don’t be taken aback if a baby shows some interest. Whatever happens, as one woman was told, “if someone gets wet and no one gets dropped” the baptism has been a success.

Take younger children into account as well. Older siblings of a baby to be baptized can be given a task (helping with a children’s message; pouring water into the font; reading part of the liturgy); this is also a great opportunity to talk to them about baptism, and doing so before the day of the baptism can make the difference between nervous and confident children.The same goes for older children who are being baptized. Find language that will work for them.

Think through how you’ll hold or memorize or have your liturgy held: Your hands will be full.

Immersion baptisms have a whole different set of logistics. The pastor, too, will be wet. Beyond a robe and even waders, one woman give this gender-specific advice “Wear your hair completely up that day to make sure nothing dips into the water. Even if your chest will not reach the water, depending on depth I wear a padded white bra, a sports bra, a tank top, a T-shirt and the robe over that. No matter how warm the water may plan to be, the VERY LAST thing I want a newly baptized person to see upon rising out of the water is my overly zealous chest.”

If you’ve not had practice immersing, the collective wisdom is to try it. One seminary professor of larger stature insisted that his students immerse him, so that they would always be confident baptizing someone much taller than themselves. Pastors in traditions that practice infant baptism may be most accustomed to springing water on infants and small children, but often have the liturgical option, for adult baptisms, of immersion. If you’re about to do an immersion baptism for the first time, find a colleague with more practice to teach you how.

Women who are experienced at immersion baptisms remind us to get our feet set in a good stance, or use a “side-lunge”, and to use the water’s buoyancy to help bring the person back up.

One woman once witnessed a baptism where someone hit their head on the edge of the baptistry and advises carefully considering the size of your baptistry. Considering asking a taller person to kneel and have their head dunked forward rather than back.

There’s also a trick several women discussed: using a white cloth (plain white handkerchiefs work well) to hold over someone’s mouth and nose as they go under and come back up. This can eliminate the need for nose-plugging.

You are, of course, going to have baptism mishaps. We all have stories. But no matter what happens, baptizing is one of the great joys, privileges, and mysteries of your calling.

Things People Give Me

figsOn one recent Tuesday, these are the things people gave me: one bag of figs, one homemade toy tractor, one piece of chocolate cake, and one giant box of saltine crackers.

The figs were from some church members with a tree in their yard. Turns out my daughter loves figs. The toy tractor was a gift from one of my son’s many adopted grandparents, beautifully crafted out of wood and love. The saltines were from someone who had accidentally bought individually wrapped crackers and thought surely the church could use them, and the cake was from a woman who was headed to the hospital for several days and didn’t want it to go bad.

That was a pretty normal day. Sometimes I think this ministry could be defined by the things people give me.

Decades-old prayer books from someone’s uncle who was a minister. Family heirlooms from a church member who doesn’t have any children. Tattered books of children’s bible stories uncovered at rummage sales. Newspaper articles clipped and slipped under my door, with highlighted names and handwritten notes: “He used to be a member here!” Books people think I should read. Hand-crafted wooden boxes: four of them, to date – two for me, from two different woodworkers, and one for each of my kids, “because every child needs a treasure box.”

I get leftover soup from church luncheons and fresh loaves of pumpkin bread. Plates of cookies left after the funeral reception has been cleaned up. Bags of salad that will go bad before the next church dinner. (The salad goes home for my family; the cookies rarely make it out of my office). I’ve gotten vegetables from home gardens, and cartons of eggs from a family who raises chickens. On my birthday one year, someone left a bag of peanut m&m’s hanging in a plastic bag on my doorknob.

Gifts of love, all of them. Sometimes – the food especially – it’s a way of taking care of me, of caring for me and my family. Sometimes, it’s a reminder that part of this calling is to share their stories, that when you don’t know what to do with something meaningful, the church is a pretty good place to go.

Last week, a woman I didn’t know knocked on the door of my office. She looked tired, and held out a small cardboard box. She explained that she lived nearby, and that she’d spent the past week moving her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, out of her home in another city and into a care facility. “I found this,” she said, “and I wanted to give it your church.”

It was a blessing box, used to collect coins to be donated through the Christian Women’s Fellowship to support missions work around the world. This woman’s mother had been active in a Disciples church for many years, but through time and circumstance, this little box had never found its way back to the women’s group from which it came. The daughter had hadn’t had time to drop it off at her mother’s church, and so brought it to me, trusting that I would know what to do with it.

Judging by the weight of the coins, there can’t be more than a few dollars in the box, but that’s how those blessing boxes work: a few dollars here, a few dollars there, and amazing work gets done. I could picture the women’s group she attended, imagined how much they are missing her now that she can’t be with them.

I asked some questions, but the daughter didn’t really want to chat. It had taken four days, she told me, to make the move and clean out the house. I could tell she didn’t have the emotional energy to talk about it anymore. Please, just take this box so I can go back to the work of my grief, she said with her eyes.

So I said what I always say when people give me these things:

Thank you.

I Do; I Don’t: Two Takes on Co-Pastoring

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Kassie

The Church has always been central to my relationship with my husband, Travis. We were both in seminary when we met at the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly in 2009. We immediately clicked over our similar theologies and love of church camp.

When we started dating in the fall of 2010, we quickly realized that this was something we “didn’t want to screw up,” (Travis’ words, not mine) and began dreaming what our future could be like. Before we were even engaged, we talked about co-pastoring. We agreed that if we were ever able to serve together, we would be equals working alongside each other.

Last spring when I was getting ready to graduate and planning my ordination, we found an opportunity to serve together as Co-Associate Pastors in a small town in Kansas an hour north of Kansas City. We fell in love with the congregation and accepted the call. I started working at the church in June, and Travis joined me in August after spending all summer at church camp. We got married in October.

Right now, we are sharing one position and have split up responsibilities in ways that work for us. Travis is also finishing seminary (he will graduate in December!), so I work two-thirds time and he works one-thirds time. Most of Travis’ time is spent working with the two youth praise bands our congregations has, helping lead worship on Sundays, and helping lead youth group on Sunday evenings. After all of that, he usually only has time to spend a few hours in the office, so I do a lot of our organizational work. I oversee our Christian Education programs (with some help from Travis and WONDERFUL lay leaders), am working on how to start a small groups ministry, and help lead worship on Sundays with our Senior Minister and Travis.

And this really works for us. Sometimes it is difficult. There are times when we realize we’re talking about work too much at home, or Travis handles something differently than how I would, or I forget to tell Travis about something that happened at a meeting he couldn’t attend. But for us, the benefits outweigh the frustration. I can see us co-pastoring for a long time.

The moment that I realized exactly how blessed I was to work with my husband was on Christmas Eve. Toward the end of the service, he lit his candle off of mine while we were singing “Joy to the World” and a tear came to my eye and I leaned over to him to whisper, “How lucky are we?!” It was the first time we had ever worshiped together on Christmas Eve. In the three Christmases we’d been together, it was the first Christmas Eve we’d been able to eat dinner together and go to church together. So many pastor couples don’t get to worship together on Christmas Eve. I felt blessed because I got to be with my husband, even though it was a “working holiday” for us.

Heidi

When people meet me for the first time and I mention that my husband, Tim, is also an ordained pastor in our denomination, their first guess is that we pastor a church together. Their second guess comes quickly after the first: that we each pastor our own congregation. The most common assumptions are the two situations that we have decided not to pursue, and so far, in our 18 years of combined ministry, we have managed to avoid both of them.

We do not pastor two different churches, because we are committed to worshiping together on a weekly basis with our young family (we have 3 daughters). Also, the prospect of getting to know two communities with equal vigor is daunting.

We do not pastor a church together for a couple of reasons. First of all, our denomination has only been ordaining women for just under 20 years and it is still rare for women to be lead or sole pastors of congregations. If Tim and I were to pastor a church together, the temptation (for some members) would be to see Tim as the lead, and me as the associate, even if our roles were coequal. In order for me to develop my gifts for shepherding a congregation and in order to help the denomination adjust to having women in lead roles, we think it is important for me to pastor without Tim. Additionally, we find having separate ministry contexts good for our emotional life. When church life is tough, it is refreshing for me to be with Tim, knowing that he is not immersed in the same network of relationships.

Ever since Tim was ordained in 2003, we have committed to only one of us has being in parish ministry at a time. Last year, while I was serving my first congregation and Tim was flourishing in hospice chaplaincy, it became clear that we needed to look for what was next. We opened ourselves up to all options – a shared position in a seminary, mission work abroad, church planting. God’s good call brought us to Kingston, Ontario, where I am the pastor of a congregation and where Tim has just finished his second unit of CPE (while also staying at home with our youngest daughter and looking for a part-time chaplaincy position).

Twice now, Tim has left a job that he loves to make way for my call to parish ministry. If that’s not loving me like Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, I don’t know what is.

Our preferred arrangement allows us to use our best gifts for the kingdom and to be emotionally available to each other.

That said, Tim is going to be preaching eight straight weeks at a church in town (filling in for a sabbatical), so we’ll get a taste of the double-church life. And I daydream now and then about how Tim and I really would make a good team. Between us, we have a pretty broad range of pastoral gifts. As our marriage and our denomination age, we all may be increasingly ready for a co-pastorate. In the meantime, we are grateful that our plan has fit into God’s plan.

 

Learning to Love (No, Really Love) “My” Congregation

Churches are full of people who behave badly and make poor choices and screw things up for themselves and for the whole community.  There.  The cat’s out of the bag, right?

I knew this going into ministry.  I learned all sorts of helpful stuff in seminary and field education about family systems, healthy communication, and how to manage “pastoral issues.”  And I was so busy trying to remember how to solve everyone else’s problems that I forgot to learn that I bring my own problems into the system.


Last month I celebrated my fifth anniversary at my church.  And I’m giving great thanks for the gift this has been to me.  The gift of rootedness: staying put when things are shitty, great, boring, too busy, exciting, tragic, hopeful, messy, embarrassing, abundant, and a little stodgy.  The gift of relationship: being with people over time, moving into, and out of, and sometimes into again, different conflicts.  Making peace with a person because neither one of us is going anywhere and, grrrr, God has called us both into community together. I’m not just their rector: I’m a learner-in-residence

One great gift this community has given me is understanding ministry “with,” rather than ministry “for” the beloved community.   As I’m starting to understand, I am not in this place to bring health and sanity and spirituality and modern ideas to a congregation.  I am here for the same reason we are all in the community: because God has called us to believe we may just be better off together than apart.  And I don’t think God is stupid.  I don’t think God forgot how wretched we can be to each other, and I don’t think God overlooked the fairly obvious theological and aesthetic differences that sometimes exist between members of the community.  No, the funny thing about God is that, somehow, in spite of it all, God shows up in massive ways when we come together.  And I do share my gifts—my crazy ideas, my youth, my experience.  And I make it a point to be intentional about receiving gifts from the community as well.

Another gift from this community: new vocabulary.  The words I used when I first came here don’t really feel comfortable anymore.  New words have crept into my vocabulary that, I hope, describe our relationships more accurately, relationships with people who nurture and encourage and guide me as much as I do the same for them.  I used to visit “parishioners” or “congregants” in the hospital.  These days I tend to visit “members of my community,” or “members of my church” or often just “friends.” I’ve given up on “trying to make them understand” (did it ever work anyway?) and now “invite” my friends to join in experiences that have been meaningful to me and to others.  I used to be fond of “my people,” and while I still appreciate the intimacy (and the Biblical reference) of this term, I cringe when I hear myself say things like, “oh, my people would never go for that.”  I can’t really claim any ownership of this diverse and brilliant community.  And I find that when given the chance to hear and be heard, to try, to experiment, to evaluate, to pray together and apart, to be in conversation…“my” people will try just about anything, God bless them.

Another gift: forgiveness.  I screw up in my community life all the time.  Ask my congregation.  With the grace in this community I’ve ventured again and again into the realm of confession, apology, and forgiveness.  I have received forgiveness.  I’ve offered forgiveness. And in forgiveness, I’ve started to understand that there’s no such thing as perfection; only living, and loving, and screwing up, and being forgiven, and forgiving again.  I have the power to forgive, and I’ll have opportunities to forgive the same person 17 more times for the same thing.  And as long as they’ve got me, the dear people of this community will keep forgiving me for forgetting that prayer request or not asking that person’s opinion, or always showing up with lame, store-bought food for the potlucks.


This community I serve with is not a hip church.  We are not large.  We aren’t cutting edge.  I don’t know that we’ve ever been the first to do anything.  But I still think we’re the best-kept secret in town.  Because inside and outside this building, together with these people, I’ve experienced grace and belonging and being full and being healed, like nowhere else.  It is in, and through, these people that Christ visits me on a daily basis, and there’s no way I can own that.  But today and every day I can say  “thank you, you surprising and crazy God!”

 

Telling the Truth

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“Wait, you mean you still haven’t fired him yet?” I burst out at my colleague. She was having a meeting with her music director. The same music director. The same director, who, over a year before, she’d told me was impossible to work with and so she was forming a plan to ask him to resign. I assumed he was long gone but a year later, here she was: as angry with him as she ever was and still squirming over how she could find the nerve to let him go.

It’s not easy to fire someone. It’s not easy to be honest with your leadership or senior pastor about unpleasant things you’ve seen in your fellow staff, or lay leaders, or on committees. It’s not easy to be honest with people in your church when they are behaving badly, carelessly, or in a way that is disrupting parish life.

A disclaimer: I shouldn’t be writing this article. Even though I wrote an ordination essay back in 2007 outlining a Christian moral position on lying, connecting Immanuel Kant with the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve had a terrible time with honesty in my own congregation. It’s not that I’ve lied; but mostly, in my five-year tenure here, I’ve swallowed the truth. I didn’t want to make a mistake or hurt someone. Mostly, I ended up getting my own insides burnt, because the truth has a lot of spikey points when you try to swallow it.

But the longer I’m a priest, the more necessary it seems to me (and the easier it gets for me) to practice honesty. Honesty and transparency are crucial to developing a trusting relationship with a congregation. If you can’t tell the truth, reveal the numbers, bandage the wounds, or dig out the weeds because no one, including you, can point to them, you can’t help a congregation grow in the Gospel.

Now, it may be that your congregation has a systemic, historic problem with secrets and dishonesty. That’s going to require some love, patience, and formation in congregational development from the experts (ask colleagues or clergy you admire to help you find resources, support, and training).

On the other hand, pastoral honesty without humility or the foundation of relationship can be a clumsy, blunt, and hurtful instrument. Just because you’re clergy doesn’t mean you have a right or obligation to share your honest appraisal of everything. (For reference, see recent viral list: “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon.”) The right to be honest comes only from our responsibility to be relational.

Here are ten tips (I love tip lists!) for practicing responsible, relational honesty in your context:

  1. Be a leader that people can be honest with. Strive to be confident and calm enough that other people can tell you the truth, face to face, and you can hear it – and maybe even learn from it. Be able to admit when you’ve been wrong.
  2. Pick your battles. Some things are worth being honest about, and other things aren’t. If you’re not sure, sleep on it or ask colleagues for their perspective. Many things can be let go.
  3. Have the difficult conversation. Sleep on it… but not for a month! Get to the point, be directive, and don’t apologize. Preserve the good of your congregation above the feelings of individuals. Convey to the other person, despite the difficult topic, what you value about them as part of the conversation.
  4. Trust that your relationships with your leaders and congregation can withstand some bumpy roads. If you don’t trust that this is the case, visit, visit, visit your people to build up that trust. Or start looking for another job.
  5. Don’t try to have an honest conversation with an irrational, possibly crazy, person. They. Will. Always. Win. Set boundaries and expectations, then stick to them.
  6. Affirm, congratulate, and say “thank you” much more often than you correct, instruct, or criticize.
  7. Stay with your emotions and don’t try to stifle them: admitting your sadness, nervousness, or anger can help you set aside fear and rigidity.
  8. Show some vulnerability. Say “I don’t know” sometimes. Don’t be the pastor who always has the answers. Ask for help when you need it. Tell people when you’re having a bad day, when you disagree, or that you are going to turn down that piece of cake, thank you.
  9. Practice truth-telling with your church board. Appoint someone to play devil’s advocate for important conversations. Go around the table and ask people to share their perspective on an issue. Ask them, “What would you do if you were in my position?”
  10. And how to fire that staff person: Well, there’s no formula for this one because so many factors can be in play. Before taking action, talk to your mentor or colleagues. But don’t wait too long!

The old adage goes “Speak the truth in love,” but we often forget the rest of the verse: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15). Speaking the truth, first, is about seeking Christ and growing as part of his Body. Not about being righteous, confident, corrective, or even caring; but aspiring to “grow up into Christ.” Honesty is a spiritual discipline. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But the most healthy and holy honesty brings us closer to God and to one another, rather than pushing us apart. And that’s why, really, we should never be afraid of it.

Eight Lessons Learned

I’m not a seasoned pastor by any means, but this list is full of what I’ve learned at the beginning of my career in ministry.  The lessons, both painful and enlightening, are still fresh in my mind, so here they are, written as for a new pastor:

1. Network.

Having a group of other pastors to talk honestly with and glean ideas from is essential.  My first call was in a very rural area and the pastors in my text study shared my weekly frustrations, lonely days and celebrations.  I developed a beloved friendship with a wise pastor whose passion for rural ministry still showed after 40 years.  Recently my family and I visited him and his wife in their new retirement home.  We hadn’t seen each other for a few years, but the continued warmth and support was evident as they served us a special lunch and he set up his trains in the basement so my son could play.  You’ll need the help and support of fellow pastors, and a few of these relationships become sacred.  Be active about searching them out.

2. Listen to friends and family.

You’ll also need to be intentional about keeping up your friendships outside the church and spending time with your family.  Ministry lends itself to living in a bubble and it’s important to leave it periodically.  Get some real-world perspective.  Have fun.  If they think you’re working too much, burning yourself out, or becoming weirdly focused on liturgical traditions/writing down every single sermon illustration you notice/rehashing a conversation with a congregation member, you are.  Listen to them.

3. There will always be another Lent.

I remember planning my first liturgical season.  I was convinced it had to be the best! Lent! Ever! After a few seasons of this, I realized there will always be another Lent.  That’s the beauty of a church year.  Pace yourself.  Church work is a marathon, and if you run at a sprinter’s pace you’ll tire quickly.  You don’t need to find room this year for every beautiful confession or every single Lenten hymn.

4. Failure is the only option.

Get comfortable with spectacular, public failure because you’ll experience a lot of it.  You can’t preach most Sundays for many years without preaching a terrible sermon.  And by terrible, I mean a sermon you preach as quickly as possible and immediately burn.  I guarantee you’ll plan some wonderful programs and no one will show up.  The bulletin will have embarrassing misprints and you’ll forget the name of the baby you’re about to baptize.  All of these are great learning experiences and will only make you better prepared for what’s ahead.  They’re painful but necessary.  They make you appreciate the programs that do work and the sermons you’re proud to preach.  And don’t forget the Holy Spirit works mysteriously in the midst of it all.  Pastors need lots of grace, and ministry doesn’t let us forget it.

Besides, parishioners love to see your human side and tease you for your mistakes.

5. Ministry is all trial and error.

Don’t let the failures get you down.  Risk is an essential part of ministry.  You’ll take all sorts of creative, personal, and public risks.  Often you won’t know what works with a congregation until you try it.  If no one shows up for a program, use that information to hone your future planning.  If you try something and people get angry, you’ve discovered an area of passion.

People will complain and grumble.  Trying to please them all will paralyze you and your ministry.  Let go and embrace risks as an individual and as a community.

6. Strategize.

So many people want so much of my time that I need to do lots of prioritizing—and saying no.  Know what’s essential.  I once had a rural pastor tell me there are three things every pastor needs to do: preach the best you can, visit people in their homes, and love their kids.  I find if I faithfully do hospital and home visits, preach thoughtful and well-prepared sermons, and honestly engage the youth of the congregation I serve, I receive a lot of grace when it comes to evening meetings and bulletin misprints.  Good preaching takes time, and that means something else has to give.  Every context is different, but you’ll need to find out what matters most to a congregation—and you—so you can prioritize.

Play up your strengths and interests and recognize your weak areas.  Don’t just go with a canned Confirmation program.  What interests you?  Do you love world religions or pop culture?  Are you a musical, movie or sports buff?  Incorporate your passions into your teaching and preaching.  If you’re excited about a topic, chances are your congregation will be too, and you’ll all have more fun.  Look for people with different strengths than yours and let them handle your weak areas.  You’re not expected to do everything, even though we pastors like to believe we can.

Enjoy the slow weeks.  You’ll have lots of crazy weeks with funerals and retreats and Holy Week (sometimes all in the same week).  When you encounter one of the magical weeks without Confirmation or sermon planning, take an afternoon or an extra day off, and enjoy it.  And for goodness’ sake, take all your vacation!

7. Find good feedback.

You need good feedback to hone your skills and tap into the congregation’s passions.  You’ll need to double-check your missional direction.  Find a few trusted people in the congregation who will give you honest, helpful, constructive feedback and check in with them often.  Be careful they don’t become feeders for congregational complaints.  Rather, use them as your eyes and ears in the congregation.  What’s working well?  Why is a certain area lacking energy?  Let them take the pulse of the church for you.

8. People like to feel useful.

Stop prefacing requests with “I’m sorry, but…” or “If you’re not too busy…”  This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.  I don’t like asking for help.  It’s been difficult for me to realize I’m inviting people into opportunities to serve, and many people like to feel useful.  By depending on the same few people I know will say yes, I end up with burned out volunteers.  Reach out and give new people the chance to participate.  Don’t be afraid of failure or people saying no.  Just keep asking.  Better yet, find people who have the gift of invitation to support you.  At one church I served, one woman recruited over 100 Vacation Bible School volunteers every year.  It was her ministry.  What a blessing!

I end with a bonus lesson that overarches this whole list: trust your instincts.  You can reach a ton of books about evangelism, pastoral care, preaching and administration.  Yes, there is always more to learn.  But only you know the church you serve.  You know their points of pride, their insecurities and their idiosyncrasies.  Trust yourself to translate what you’ve learned into their context.  Sometimes you need to leave the books on the shelf and go your own direction.  Just like your own list after eight years of ministry may look very different than mine.

Ministry is exhausting, unpredictable, and frustrating.  It’s also exhilarating, profoundly meaningful, endlessly creative, and full of joy.  Pray for strength and patience, and know you’re not alone.  And remember—in the end it’s God’s ministry, not yours.

Clergy Dress Review

There is a great divide in my closet. There are the conservative, mostly black and white and shades of grey professional clothes that go with my black clergy shirts and white collars. And there are the more colorful, fun dresses, sweaters, tops and blue jeans that I wear when I am off duty. While a few colorful jackets, sweaters or skirts occasionally do double duty and have been seen on a Sunday morning or at an evening meeting, it is rare. And while I don’t consider myself a paragon of fashion or particularly trendy, I have felt chic and trendy in some of my off-duty clothes. I never thought I would use the word “chic” to describe something that involved my collar. That is until one of Camille Daley’s dresses arrived on my doorstep.

Like many of my fellow women clergy, I have frequently complained about the poor choices we have when it comes to official garb – it is shapeless and ill fitting – designed for some mythical woman who I have never met and I am pretty sure does not exist. I have made do with janies and t-shirts or modified black blouses from Target or Old Navy. While those solutions have allowed me to have something that is somewhat tailored or at least a bit more fitting than most clergy blouses, they are still not ideal, and I wouldn’t call them trendy.

The dress that arrived on my doorstep was a knee-length dress, and I love it. For the first time I actually had my collar on AND felt chic. It is comfortable and fun. It comes with a tab collar, but I found I could also wear it with a full collar (see picture). Best of all it is machine washable and does not wrinkle. I just pulled it out of a suitcase and it looks perfect.

While I know this dress (or its variations) may not be for everyone, take comfort that there are fashion minded people out there seeking to provide us clergy women with trendy comfortable clothes. House of Ilona will soon be offering a line of clergy shirts as well. Camelle (owner/designer) is also interested in creating what we want, so if there is something particular you would like, please be in touch with her through her website. She would love to have our feedback! http://houseofilona.com/clergy-collection

And if you decide to order from her, let her know you are a member of TYCWP and she will donate a percentage of her sales back to the Project.

Photo Credit: Molly Field James

Molly Field James is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Connecticut. She serves as Secretary of the Diocese and as a Sunday only priest for the Middlesex Cluster. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hartford Seminary and St. Joseph’s College. Her husband, Reade, is a mechanical engineer, and they have a daughter Katherine who was born in October of 2010. In addition to ministry and education, Molly loves cooking, reading, films and spending time in the splendor of God’s Creation.