What I Learned in My First Year in Ministry

Standing in my living room surrounded by church members, I put my hand on a small group leader’s shoulder and anointed her with oil. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes. It was a moment I’ve thought about as I’ve reflected on my first year of ministry, one of the many meaningful experiences I’ve had. I am glad I have memories like these to think back on. Ministry is not easy. I have found ministry to be a mixed bag of frustration punctuated by moments of grace and growth. As I look back on the first year, I’ve learned many lessons, some easier than others. Below you’ll find six of the most important.

Sexism in the church is real. Practice creative problem solving.
There have been several times during my short time in ministry where I have come into contact with subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexism. People have a tendency to comment on my weight, my hair, my clothes, and my way of doing things consistently. People treat me differently than they treat my husband, who is also a pastor. There are fewer women in the denominational structure who share my gender and invest in me. While this is frustrating, I realized that there are female leaders who have learned to navigate the system well. These women have turned their frustration into creative problem solving and the best ones have done it with a sense of humor. In my own way, I am learning how to recognize injustice and use my resources to circumvent roadblocks that keep me from being an effective minister. Some of the best leaders I know have developed much of their leadership arsenal while navigating spaces of great adversity.  Knowing this has helped me to cultivate gratitude in the midst of frustration.

Instead of trying to be successful, get to know the people.
I spent the first few months of my ministry trying to figure out what the “rules” of ministry were because I wanted to be a successful pastor. As a former high school teacher, I knew there had to be rules somewhere! What I found in the church instead of rules were complicated networks of people. It took some time for me to feel out the culture of my church, the people I’d be working with, and the neighborhood. In the process, I learned that ministry is more relational than rule-oriented. Once I learned this, the image I had of a successful pastor got a little bigger and there was more space for me to bring my whole self to the job. I also felt freer to be creative and use my skills to reach goals in my own way.

Lead out of who you are.
I have learned that I can only lead out of who I am. I have a gender, an age, a racial identity. All of these things have shaped my life experiences and made me into the person that I am. In my first year of ministry, it has been important to share who I am without trying to copy another person’s leadership style, even the women leaders I look up to. I have used my own story in sermons and small groups. For example, this year I shared a story about becoming aware of my own racism because it was an important part of my Christian walk. This led to a spirited discussion of race and its importance in our lives at a women’s retreat as other people uncovered their own hidden biases. Movement through my own codependency has led me to recognize and deal with the codependency in my congregants and has helped to improve the health of our church programs. In many ways my wounds are gifts to those around me. Sharing my experiences has created a space for people to share about their lives and struggles. I think this has been one of the most valuable aspects of my first year of ministry.

It’s important to be theologically aligned with your co-workers.
No one is going to agree with you 100%. People have not been formed by the same relationships, bible studies, and seminary that has formed me. My own Christian walk is unique. Through our hermeneutic and life experiences, each of us live out our faith differently. And while it is good and healthy to expect theological differences among co-workers, it is equally important to share an understanding of the work of Jesus and the church in the world with your co-workers, especially if you will be working under another pastor’s vision. For example, if you feel that your faith compels you to social action, and the people you work with or your congregation don’t see the value in your approach, it is a recipe for frustration. Get to know the church you would like to work for and the people you would like to work with and make sure that it is a mutual fit so that your ministry is life-giving to both you and your congregation.

Cultivating a non-anxious presence comes through processing your own anxieties.
As pastors, we are called to be with people in the sacred moments of their lives; in birth, sickness, change, and death. It is immensely helpful to be a non-anxious presence in the stressful moments of other’s lives. I have learned that I can only do this by processing my own anxiety. This year, I had a chance to do this as I sat across from two congregants to discuss changing a long-running church program. I could feel my desire to please them bubbling up inside me. This was at odds with my desire to bring attention to the parts of the program I felt were unhealthy. It was an uncomfortable place to be, but by allowing space for my feelings, I had the chance to see what happened when I listened to my anxiety rather than reacted to it. I learned that it’s okay to be in tight spots, and that sometimes being in them allows me to deal with my own unresolved issues. This in turn helps me to be more present to the people in front of me.

Be patient.
In my first year in ministry I have learned nothing more thoroughly than this lesson. Recently I memorized the Message version of 2 Corinthians 5:8, “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” In ministry, many days go by where it seems nothing is happening, no one is changing or growing, least of all myself. But through patience, I began to recognize the small changes in myself and others: the ways pastors extended trust to me or how a congregant was willing to share a story with me about the loss of their child. Change is slow in coming, and ministry is hard work, but God’s grace is ever unfolding and not a day goes by without it.

Blessing of the Backpacks

Amelia, age 4, after her first day of preschool in 2018

I have always loved back to school season. As a child I looked forward to picking out my new folder and composition book, eagerly watching as my mother painstakingly wrote our names on every item that would accompany us on our first day of school. When I finally graduated for the last time, I would find myself in the back-to-school section of Target, looking wistfully at the bins of 24 count crayons and Bic highlighters. Sometimes I grabbed a box or two—$0.25 is a great price for crayons, after all.

This year is different, though. This year I have two excited five-year-olds who don’t quite understand the concept of a supply list. They want new lunch boxes even though their preschool ones are fine; they want the folders with kittens and unicorns instead of the plain red and yellow requested by the teacher. They want the MEGA pack of crayons. In another week or so I will sit on my bed with their supplies scattered around, just as my mother did, and carefully write their names on everything, including each pencil.

In a few weeks I will send my little ones on the bus for the very first time, and my heart will do little flips. Now more than ever I need a blessing on these children and the grownups I am entrusting with their care.

A Blessing of the Backpacks is a wonderful way to begin the school year, surrounding the students, teachers, and educational support staff of your congregation with prayer and blessings. I’ve developed the following liturgy over the last few years, and usually use it during the children’s sermon. It could easily be adapted into a litany so that many voices are represented and heard. The school supplies are in bold as a visual cue to hold up the item and let the children call out its name if you wish:

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Parlor and Kitchen Stories

Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths.

This spring, I took a job in a new church context. There is something so unique and exhausting about the first couple of months of a new job, trying to memorize names, make connections, and meet expectations which may or may not be spelled out. One major aspect of any new job is listening: getting people to open up, and hearing the stories that parishioners choose to tell.

As I listened to all these stories, I was reminded of something I heard at a conference a couple of years ago. The speaker talked about church in terms of parlor stories and kitchen stories. The parlor is the room in a house with immaculate carpet and formal furniture–parlor stories are those stories that cast the church in the most positive light. Parlor stories are the “official” history of the church and feature the content that would belong on a brochure. They are like a grandmother’s pristine furniture covered in plastic. They are the stories that I heard from people serving on the search committee when I was going through the interview process.

A parlor exists as a valid room of a house, and parlor stories are valid, but they are not the only truth about a church. In contrast to the parlor, different narratives emerge when people are busy scrapping food off plates and wiping down counters. Kitchen stories are the unsparing, honest, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink truths. Read more

Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship

My boys love going to church. On Sunday mornings, as I’m rushing to get out the door, they are moving quickly right with me, excited to get there. It is amazing and gratifying and humbling to witness, and I do not expect it to last forever. I will cherish it while it does. 

The truth is that Sundays in many homes where people are trying to get out the door to church are not always peaceful and pleasant. But often, as soon as they enter the doors, there is a transformation. Arguments pause, smiles return, and all is well once again. Through unspoken agreement, we participate together in the rhythms and rituals of worship. It’s holy space, but susceptible to the overcrowding of the mundane or the lull of familiar patterns.

Inspired by some musings shared by members of Young Clergy Women International, I present to you “Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship.”1

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The Gifts of Waiting

When I can help it, I do things early.

I learned to ride a bike at five, moved away from home at sixteen, and graduated college after three brisk years. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry.

And yet, I couldn’t hurry a call.

I tried. Believe me, I tried. I’ll spare you the gory details—but, suffice it to say, I spent a year unemployed and several more years broadening my understanding of ministry. I worked for a Catholic nonprofit and then Renewal Ministries Northwest, a dynamic prayer ministry in the Seattle area. In 2016, I was ordained to an unconventional, part-time ministry shepherding the remnant of a congregation that had departed the Presbyterian Church (USA) for A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In late 2018, I wrote and published a devotional for teen girls (Simple Truths). I felt like I was making lemonade, growing gills. I could feel the Spirit pushing me toward surrendering my idol of ordained ministry.

And then, abruptly, She called me back to it.

I received the call itself through a series of unexpected events. I had finally found a rhythm with my work at Renewal Ministries, and Simple Truths had just been published. Then, the phone rang. On the other end: someone from the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) from my hometown back in Tennessee, wondering if I’d throw my hat in the ring. They weren’t even offering me a position, just a chance at one—and it unraveled my world. I spent a week in tormented talks with my husband. Could we move? Did I really want this (anymore)? Is this what a call feels like? Read more

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

We are Three

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français?

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

-from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth

 

This year, 2019, National Siblings Day occurred the week before Holy Week. National Siblings Day is, many suspect, a holiday completely made up by social media companies in order for people to get on whatever profile they use and post more photos of users who happen to be related. It’s like the 21st century equivalent of a “Hallmark Holiday” – made for the purpose of a company proliferating itself; some people find it meaningful or fun, others let it pass by unnoticed.

To be honest, I don’t take much notice of it. I see other people posting about it throughout the day, and I realize what’s being celebrated.

I live 1500 miles from my immediate family, in my first church call, which I share with my spouse. In this digital age, I have not been at my parents’ house long enough in the last few years to scan the thousands of pictures of me and my brother and sister when we were young: big glasses whose glare hides eyes from the camera, graphic T-shirts that are entirely too big, hair that is untidily coifed in strange hairdos from a bygone era.

For many the connection between Siblings Day and Holy Week are coincidental.
For me, they are building toward a painful, hopeful climax.
You see, we buried my brother on Good Friday.

As a theologically-minded person from a young age, I marked my springtime by Holy Week and Easter usually involving a huge church play each Holy Weekend. At college, there were different traditions, and I was looking forward to entering them.

When I was 20 years old, the Monday of Holy Week my brother was killed in a car accident. I wonder if Jesus felt like I did, going toward Good Friday: that it was simultaneously the longest and shortest week of my life. Everything was askew, my feelings dulled and heightened. I missed both Holy Week rituals: the Easter play at my childhood church, AND the Tenebrae that was taking place at my college. The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français? Read more

scrabble tiles spelling "fail"

Fascinating Failure

scrabble tiles spelling "fail"I doubt anyone really enjoys failing, but some of us seem to be especially hard-wired to avoid it at all costs. Failure doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t make us look good. When interviewing for a new job, one doesn’t often lead with a list of greatest failures, but some are suggesting that, perhaps, we should.[1] They tout the benefit of “failure resumes,” which are likely to be far longer and more extensive than the real resumes or CVs we present to the world.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), our call process invites candidates to answer four narrative questions: 1. Describe a moment in your recent ministry that you recognize as one of success and fulfillment. (Forget failure – let’s talk success!) 2. Describe the ministry setting to which you believe God is calling you. (A successful one?) 4. Describe a time when you have led change. (If we’re honest, this invites talking about failure, because leading real change inevitably involves some failure along the way).

It’s the third question that has always baffled me. 3. What areas of growth have you identified in yourself? Is an “area of growth” a place where we have grown and shown more success? Or is it a place where we identify more room for growth – and thus places where, perhaps, we have failed? In conversation with colleagues, the resounding answer was the former, following the general rule that nothing negative should be written on the form.

We’ve all been coached to answer questions about weaknesses by highlighting our strengths, right? I’m reminded of an episode of The Office, one of my favorite shows, where Michael Scott is in an interview and asked about his greatest strengths. Instead, he responds: “Why don’t I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job.”[2] Whatever the field, we want to put our best foot forward. Competition can be fierce. Why hobble ourselves by exposing failure, no matter how big or small? Read more

author's baby

Provision

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus….Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her…“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

(Luke 1:28-40, selections)

author's baby

Luke does not record
what the neighbors say
but the comments are there,

crouching behind the text.
When the messenger says, “Favored One!”
we can almost hear the echoing

“You?”

Luke does not
mention it,
but, guaranteed: Mary knows

it’s there. She knows
when it’s known
that she’s been known,

the greetings will change.
The power of God will not stop
the side-eye. Yet, perhaps

when this babe
opens a tiny mouth
with a vast hunger

and she is able to fill it,
for the time being, a grace
so consuming, a provision

so merciful will bear her
through pain and recoil, this gift
that she agrees to give Read more

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Talking to Young Children about Death

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”

Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”

As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.

When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.

Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening. Read more

lit up exit sign

Tools for Good News People When Sharing Bad News: How to Let a Church Employee Go

lit up exit signAs the new year unfolds, so often does the need for casting new visions for the church. The new year can be a space in which to start anew and a moment for leadership to cast new visions for the communities they serve. Improving the functioning of the church to best support and sustain its more visible ministries is often the first step in achieving these new visions. Unfortunately, this often comes with the prayerful discernment that changes might need to be made to the roles and employment of paid and unpaid lay staff. In short, sometimes in order to strengthen your church’s ministry and fulfill its vision, it is necessary to let an employee go.

I used to work a corporate job where, for over nine years, I was instrumental in the hiring and firing of staff from multiple departments. From that experience, I learned what is the best practice when having to give someone the news that they no longer have a job under your employment.

Now let’s be honest, this is one of the worst parts of the job. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news…we are supposed to be the good news people! But unfortunately, this is a part of the job and one that is not spoken about enough. Of course, please follow all the employment laws you are required to by your church and state governance and report all unlawful activity to the appropriate authorities. I am also only talking about the specific act of letting someone go, not the process of discernment that should lead up to the decision. This article assumes that a healthy and contextually appropriate discernment process involving church leadership, has been completed and brought you to the need for termination.

Once I started doing this more regularly, although it never got easier emotionally, I became more adept at doing it skillfully and compassionately. I created an acronym to remind me of the things I needed to make this meeting as respectful and dignity-giving as possible.  That acronym is P.H.A.S.E.S. It stands for: Pray, Have paperwork ready, At beginning of shift in private, Supervisor (or HR), Exit strategy, Say as little as possible. I will go through each of these in a bit more detail. All of these steps can also be adapted to your specific context and are only meant to help open the conversation around this part of the pastoral role. Read more