wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and sky

The Importance of Mental Hygiene

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and skyMany years ago, one of my mentors moved from a large, prominent church to serving a mid-sized church. I suspect that she had brought with her some of the big-church cultural anxieties, with an emphasis on high performance and adopting best practices from the corporate world. She told me that a couple of months into working at the new church the senior pastor said to her, “God brought you to this church, and maybe God is not as interested in doing something through you here but more to do something in you here.”

She told me this anecdote with evident joy and appreciation. In the years since the senior pastor had made that insight, I could tell that she had given herself permission to relax and find greater freedom and grace in her ministry. I resonated with her story and filed it away in my memory as a good invitation of how to understand my own ministry.

Five months later, I ran a half-marathon. It was an okay experience, but during the race I started to realize just how negative my self-talk was. My thoughts included: “You’re so slow.” “You didn’t train hard enough.” “You don’t push yourself like you should.” I finished the race. I had wanted to complete it in under 2 hours, and I finished it in 2 hours and 20 seconds. I was disappointed with myself.

I went for a run less than a week after my half-marathon, and while I jogged that morning, I thought of how consistently some variation of the line “not good enough” played in my head as I ran. I sensed the Holy Spirit urging me to reframe running, just as that senior pastor had reframed ministry for my mentor. Maybe God gave me running not as something for God to achieve through me but God had given me running to change something in me.

Friends, I needed to be honest: I’m not going to be an elite runner, and I need to be okay with that. My shame and guilt around my slow pace was unhelpful. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” the protagonist said that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure. But that hadn’t been my experience: I have been much more attuned to my displeasure than God’s pleasure. My displeasure was very much connected to my performance, which I judged to be mediocre. I realized that I placed too much of a value on output and being productive, but, if God is more interested in doing something in me, maybe the outcome of my running didn’t matter that much. Read more

Harvey, Houses, and Hope

adult man in hat and teenagers on the roof of a one-story house with trees overhead

Youth and adults from First Christian Church in McKinney, Texas work together to replace the roof on a Harvey survivor’s home.

The congregation I serve is no stranger to hurricanes. In 2008, the roof on its education wing collapsed during Hurricane Ike. In the process of making repairs, our denomination built a mission station with camp-style bunk beds and shower facilities. For several years it housed volunteers for the recovery efforts, but then it lay dormant. We were called into action again as long-term Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts began.

Whenever natural disasters occur in the United States, people all over the country mobilize to help. Waters had not even receded when I was inundated with requests from church groups: wanting to schedule a mission trip as soon as possible, asking to be connected with families from my congregation in need, and offering donations of various kinds.

In the wake of a disaster, it’s possible to get so overwhelmed by the offers to help that a pastor might not know where to begin. Unfortunately, we must sometimes begin by saying No: No, please don’t come next week or even next month… there will be plenty of recovery work to do in six months, a year, and beyond. No, we don’t need any blankets, clothes, or toiletries – gift cards or donations to your favorite disaster response organization will have the biggest impact. Our instincts at giving and doing often run contrary to the needs on the ground.

Occasionally, a volunteer’s expectations can become incompatible with doing recovery work, where flexibility is key. In one exchange I emailed with the mission committee of a church in another state. At first, it seemed that they wanted to adopt our church, which had sustained some damage that was ultimately not covered by our insurance. It turned out that the minister emailing me and the chair of their mission committee had a miscommunication, and what they really wanted to do was adopt a family.

I identified a lovely family in my congregation who needed help and asked permission to share their information with the church that had contacted me. After a few more email exchanges, both the pastor and the mission chair ghosted me, and I never heard from them again. It was apparent to me that our real needs didn’t meet with their expectations of what helping us would look like.

As Christians, we certainly struggle with our understanding of mission. As a pastor, I have wrestled with the Church’s shortcomings in mission, and I am aware of the other-izing that can happen when churches engage in mission. However, it was not until Hurricane Harvey that I experienced what it means to be on the receiving end of an unbalanced system. Often, when groups engage in mission, those with resources and privilege go to help in places where people may have less access to resources and have less privilege. This can create all sorts of problems.

The gospel itself stands in tension with privilege, and in recovery work this is not just a theological issue. There are some problematic practical implications for those being helped. My county’s long-term recovery group has a “do no harm” approach to the services that we provide each Harvey survivor. Unfortunately, the un-checked privilege of volunteer groups can do harm to the people who are most vulnerable. Read more

Saul’s Armor

It took me a long time to get comfortable being myself in ministry.

When David prepares to face Goliath, Saul recommends some armor. The king, doubtful that the scrawny young shepherd is up for the task, lends David his own protective gear: a bronze helmet for his head, a heavy sword, a coat of mail. David compliantly tries it on. But, finding that he can’t walk in all that stiff, ill-fitting metal, he sets Saul’s armor aside. He heads out into the field with nothing but his tunic, staff, and slingshot, vulnerable but trusting that God will bless and keep him.

Of course, David and Goliath may not be the best metaphor for the pastoral life:  ministry, after all, isn’t about contest — it’s about connection.

But I’ve received, over the years, plenty of offers of armor nonetheless. Never a bronze helmet, or a coat of mail, but the occasional suggestion, from a church member or a colleague in ministry, that I pierce my ears, or grow my hair out, or wear a skirt on Sunday mornings — do something that will help me fit the mold of female pastor, something that will make it easier for me to navigate the complex world of gender dynamics in the church. To be clear, I’m not saying that these marks of femininity — earrings, skirts, long hair — are armor for others, just that they would be for me.

My expression of gender has never been particularly feminine — one time, a stranger at the airport, having mistaken me for Rachel Maddow, asked for my autograph. In my ministry, I dress to fit somewhere in that narrow intersection of the Venn diagram between clothes I feel comfortable in and clothes that are professionally acceptable. And, so far, this has mostly worked.

But I was no David, strutting out onto the battlefield — no, it took me much longer to get comfortable being myself in ministry. At first, I worried that it would be a hindrance, this whole business of resembling a left-leaning masculine-of-center MSNBC news anchor, especially since I’ve spent most of my career in ministry in more conservative parts of the country. I wondered whether, because I didn’t look the part, I’d lack the authority or the access needed to do the work of ministry.

When I did a CPE residency at a hospital, this was often on the forefront of my mind. I knocked on patients’ doors and introduced myself as the chaplain. Would the title on my name-tag be enough? Sometimes it wasn’t — there were times when I was too far outside the norm to be seen in the role of the minister. But often it was my own self-consciousness that got in the way. Read more

Worship Bloopers

In times of solemnity, we have all heard things or said things that were unintentionally hilarious.

I recently watched the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”  I found the romantic leads to be one-dimensional, and the movie wasn’t particularly funny, with the exception of one scene. Rowan Atkinson, a British actor most famous for depicting Mr. Bean on screen, is a nervous priest officiating one of the weddings. His scene had me hooting, and he ended his first prayer by saying, “…who reigns with you and the Holy Goat,” before self-correcting and saying “uh, er, Holy Ghost.”

The anxiety of Rowan Atkinson as priest is squirm-inducing and the wedding guests stare at him intently, their anxiety increasing as they await his next malapropism. He makes many, including asking the groom to repeat after him that he promises to take the bride “to be my awful wedded wife.” The groom modifies the words to say, “lawfully wedded wife.” “That’s right,” the priest admits, before rushing to end the service (and the end of his misery!) by concluding, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spigot …Spirit. Amen.”

Movies, of course, tend to hyperbolize the mistakes made by a character for comedic effect, but there was enough truth in that scene of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” to make it memorable to me. I’m sure many of us could share stories of things that we have heard or things we have said in times of solemnity that were unintentionally hilarious. One pastor told me that she accidentally called God “immoral” instead of “immortal.” One male colleague at my last church told me that he was ministering to a family before a funeral, and he suggested chlamydia as a good choice for the flower arrangement (unfortunately, chlamydia is not a flower; it’s an STD).

My Dad went to a wedding in the 1970s. The officiating pastor was elderly, and it was a hot August day, and there was no air-conditioning in the church. Who knows whether it was the heat, the pastor’s age, or some other factor, but the pastor was not with it. During the vows, the pastor said, “Do you, Larry…” and the matron-of-honor (who was the bride’s sister) whispered loudly to him, “Earl!  His name is Earl!” The pastor then said, “Do you, Larry Earl, take this woman, Edna…?” The bride’s name was Linda. No one corrected him this time, and everyone joked afterwards about whether the couple were actually married since the pastor never got their names right.

When my Grandpa Art turned 80 years old, his children and grandchildren gave him as a present a new suit. He wore it to church the following Sunday, and we all sat in the pew with him as the pastor said during the announcement time, “We’re so happy to see Art this morning in his birthday suit.” The pastor caught his mistake immediately, and he blushed deeply. The laughter that followed was not directed at him, however, but rather with him; the laughter was—as grace is—warm and generous. Grace abounds.

Because grace is abundant and laughter does us good, I invite you to share your own stories in the comments section below. What are some examples of verbal bloopers in your pastoral context?

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces

A pastor. In a swimsuit.

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces

swimsuits

Sometimes I forget that my sunglasses don’t actually make me invisible.

It is a Sunday afternoon. I am at the pool. I dig through my big, floppy, flowered bag that is stuffed with towels, water toys, extra swim diapers, the pool pass, and a meager amount of cash for buying popcorn and hot pretzels with cheese as our post-swimming snack. I spray thick layers of sunscreen over my kids’ arms and legs. I sunscreen my own face, rubbing furiously so that I don’t leave big white goopy streaks across my nose and cheeks. I pull on bucket hat that I purchased years ago on clearance. (It was probably so cheap because it is a strange neon color somewhere between yellow and green, a color that is flattering on absolutely no one.)

And then, before we march across the pool deck to the graduated edge of the shallow end, I put on my sunglasses.

Sunglasses are good for keeping your eyes safe. They are good for seeing lost toys at the bottom of the pool. They are great for staying inconspicuous while people-watching.

But they do not make you invisible.

I live in a town of 8000 people. Summer in Iowa gets hot. We all go to the pool.

I can deal with seeing congregation members at the grocery store and at the park. I make small talk when we bump into each other at daycare pickup, at the library, or at the Sugar Bowl, ordering our ice cream cones.

But the pool is different.

Because I am their pastor.

And I am wearing a bathing suit.

Which is of no particular concern to them, I must be clear. They have no problem with it. It’s a non-issue. I’m the one with the problem. Read more

“By the time you’re 35…” Young Clergy Women Edition

If you’re anywhere around age 35, you’ve probably heard by now that you should have twice your annual salary saved for retirement. You’ve likely also enjoyed the many responses to that sage advice, including the despair shared by a generation facing widespread financial uncertainty and a rapidly changing employment landscape. Young clergy women came up with our own list. Enjoy!

– By the time you’re 35, you should have had at least ten well-meaning people stop you and say something derogatory about your age. “I’m not calling you ‘mother,’ I have granddaughters your age.” “Thank you for your little talk [sermon] this morning!”

– By the time you’re 35, you should have at least 50 years of church experience.

– By the time you’re 35, you will have accrued more ordained experience than most male cardinal rectors, to your shock.

– By the time you’re 35, don’t worry. You’ll still be “a young person” for another 15 years.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll still be told you “look like a teenager,” and are “too young to be a pastor,” but also hear “why you didn’t ever get married and/or have kids?” because obviously, you are too ancient to do that now.

– By the time you’re 35, you will have lived more years on this earth than Jesus Christ. Congratulations!

– By the time you’re 35, you should have published at least one book.

– By the time you’re 35, still no one will care what you say because you’re still a woman.

– By the time you’re 35, you should know at least five local male colleagues your age with your same level of experience who have larger, better-paying, or more prestigious calls than you…or are going to get another degree … who all are married, with three kids under the age of 6…. and who are writing a book.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll see just how many of those male colleagues, especially ones who consider themselves to be feminists or allies with clergy women, don’t see a problem with the discrepancies between their careers and those of their female colleagues, or don’t think that the patriarchy benefitted has them in their careers.

– By the time you’re 35 you will have been ordained, had three pastoral positions, earned your PhD & written a book and people will still have problems with addressing you as ‘Rev’ and ‘Dr.’

– By the time you’re 35, you will not yet be old enough for congregation members to take you seriously, yet you will also be too old for denominational authorities to count you as one of those elusive and highly desired “young people.”

– By the time you’re 35 you should have moved eight times in your adult life.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll have more books than nearly any non-clergy person you know.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll have given up on the church/ministry at least three times and, yet, somehow, still love it.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll know just how critical and unique Young Clergy Women International is for your own support and sustainability in this sometimes maddening, and yet rich and beautiful, calling.

Naming the Desert

Figurines in the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church’s Godly Play set.

There are moments in ministry when I feel marvelously competent: when a child interrupts my Sunday School lesson to make a connection to something we learned weeks or months ago, when I preach a sermon that I know said what needed saying, when the kids I work with lead such a great Ash Wednesday worship experience that my not-so-liturgical church gladly embraces it.

And then there are moments when I know I have no idea what the heck I’m doing.

This year has been full of the latter kind of moments.

Two years ago, when I was asked to serve as moderator of my state denominational organization, I was flattered. I would be added to the list of great people who’ve come before me in that position. It would look awesome on my resume. And I was assured it wasn’t too big a thing. Over the course of the three years of service, I’d plan our annual meeting once (a lot of work, but doable work), lead coordinating council and business meetings (a bit out of my comfort zone as a minister to children and families who seldom uses those skills in the local church, but still doable), and eventually recruit a dozen or so people to rotate onto the council (children’s minister = volunteer recruiting champion). So I said yes.

Little did I know.

During my moderator-elect year, the organization dealt with a difficult situation that landed me in hours and hours of tense and frustrating meetings and didn’t end in a way that made anyone particularly happy; a fairly contentious council meeting just before I took over as moderator made the general discontent abundantly clear. Then, just as my moderator year began last April, the organization found itself without a staff at all, barring an administrative assistant who’d begun work the same day the last of our former staff departed.

The good news was that there were transition guidelines already in place. I just had to follow the directions for appointing committees, hiring an interim, and operating in the meantime, plus do a fair amount of guessing and hunting down answers about how things were normally done in the office. It was a time-management challenge, but it was mostly okay. Follow the rules as they’re laid out. Ask questions. Figure out who has what pieces of the institutional memory.

The bad news was that I also had to lead a fall council meeting for a group of people who were frustrated with one another and with the position we were in as an organization. There was nothing in the transition plan about how to deal with that. I’m a nine on the enneagram. I hate conflict. I want everyone to be happy. Gulp. Read more

Green emergency exit graphic sign with human figure running through a door and an arrow pointing left

Emergency! …But Whose?

Green emergency exit graphic sign with human figure running through a door and an arrow pointing left

There are some emergency-like situations that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.

“Doesn’t it suck,” my colleague commented to me, “when people call us in a panic because they didn’t read their email from weeks ago and now they want us to fix their problem?”

Yes, it does suck. One of my growing edges as a pastor is learning how to prevent other people’s anxiety from engulfing my day. One of the unspoken and unrealistic expectations placed on a pastor is that a parishioner’s predicament should automatically become the pastor’s. Of course, we have many real and pressing crises in pastoral ministry, such as someone moving to hospice, getting into a car accident, receiving a grim diagnosis, etc. But I’m discovering there are also situations facing folks that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.

In this identified growth area, I draw inspiration from my sister. This spring, my niece, who is 9 years old, wanted greater independence. She was tired of her mom telling her what to do. My sister and niece agreed to a week-long trial in which my sister would refrain from giving directives, which ranged from feeding the cat to taking a bath. Before the experiment began, my sister said, “Just so we’re clear: with this arrangement, your emergency doesn’t have to become my emergency.” For example, if my niece forgot to pack her lunch the night before school, she might be in a panic in the morning and go to her mom, expecting her to be similarly panicked and hence find correct change so that she could purchase a school lunch. But no, my sister said:  the consequence would be that my niece wouldn’t eat lunch that day. Happily, my niece never neglected to pack her lunch; it seems that she had sufficient internal motivation. My sister is not ready to endorse this parenting method to anyone else: there were pros and cons to letting a 9-year-old completely determine her priorities in homework, chores, and personal hygiene. Nevertheless, my niece’s attitude improved substantially, and my sister was pleased by how much their mother-daughter relationship improved.   Read more

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

Fight, Flight, or…What?

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

“Different Actions”

My latte is mostly gone. I’ve done as much work as I can do at the coffee shop. I look at my day planner as I prepare to head to the church. And there, scrawled neatly in my own handwriting, in blue ink, is a reminder of my 2:00 p.m. meeting.

I see it, and I want to crawl under the table.

It is just a meeting, of course. Just a conversation with a congregation member who wants to share some thoughts and concerns. Just a chance for me to listen and to love.

But there it is again, welling up in me: my pastoral fight-or-flight response.

Some panicked part of my brain is trying to manipulate my heart into bailing on the conversation or getting preemptively defensive.

I know this fight-or-flight feeling well. I get this feeling during contentious conversations at church council. And when I’m about to preach a difficult sermon. And when I need to visit a member at her deathbed, surrounded by family members I’ve never met. And before every vague 2:00 p.m. meeting request that comes my way.

The fight-or-flight response, according to biological psychology, is a gift of evolution. It is the brain’s way of sensing danger and reacting to threats for the sake of survival. If I were to encounter a puma along my walk up the hill from home to church, I would undoubtedly be grateful for my amygdala, for the way it would trigger my adrenal system into overdrive. I’d be glad for the racing heart, the quickened breath, the trembling extremities, the tunnel-vision, the inability to hear or see anything other than the threat of the moment. I would be enormously grateful for the deep, primal, urge to get the heck out of there (provided I didn’t feel up to the task of wrestling the beast with my bare hands).

But my life these days is actually stunningly bereft of puma stand-offs. So why does my brain still feel the need to get me all jumpy and anxious for far lesser threats? Why does a 2:00 p.m. conversation trigger in me the same gut response as would an encounter with a wild animal?

In part, this response is trigged because we are all wired to remember past moments of pain and fear (in order to fine-tune our future response to similar stimuli).

I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of needle pricks over the last decade, and yet I still get nervous before blood draws because of one painful fainting spell more than ten years in my past.

I have been on the receiving end of hurtful words at other points in my ministry, therefore I brace for impact going forward.

We all have stories like this in our ministries. We remember the mistrust and mistruths stirred up by congregation members, past or present. We remember the topics that have put us in conflict before. We remember the sermons that have provoked angry emails. We remember the hurt of being taken advantage of. Some of us carry with us deep wounds of harassment and abuse, emotional, physical, or sexual.

So what, then, do we do? How do we move forward in the callings God has set before us without feeling like we are always managing our pain and our fear? Is there a way to cultivate a third response, something in between the fight and flight polarities? Read more

green tennis ball bouncing off of a red clay court with the shadow of the net across the court

The Need for Spiritual Agility

green tennis ball bouncing off of a red clay court with the shadow of the net across the court

Spiritual agility is a cluster of grit, emotional intelligence, and practice that allows us to respond to our changing realities with strength, speed, and stability.

My middle school tennis coach used to arrange the balls in a small pile at the center of each half-court on occasion. As soon as we approached the courts, we knew the occasion was agility drill day.

As fast as possible, our little, awkward, middle-school legs would go from corner to center, grab a ball, turn quickly, and place the ball in the corner from whence we came. We tripped a few times, as clumsy middle schoolers are sometimes known for doing, but we concentrated on developing our agility: moving with strength, speed, and stability.

My tennis-playing days are pretty much over, but I pastor a church in the 21st century. Last week I was invited by a Bible Study in my congregation to discuss what it is like to be a woman in ordained ministry. They were concluding a study on Romans and startled to discover that, of the 25 saints Paul calls by name in his most famous epistle, ten were women.

“So, what is it like?” the study leader asked.

Well, here we go. I talked about the “stained glass ceiling” and the “glass cliff.” I referenced studies that about the female clergy pay gap and how women make up more than half of all MDiv graduates yet repeatedly serve in positions in which we piece together part-time work, parenting, domestic responsibilities, and/or are relegated to subordinate roles because the church is used to seeing a young, white man when they picture a minister.

AND… when you see us scramble from zumba class to bible study to committee meeting, and when we scrape a sermon together in the gaps before our kids’ parent-teacher conference and a pastoral care visit, you are seeing a miracle at lightning speed. In the 21st century, it’s not realistic for followers of Jesus to simply walk one way down a winding shepherd’s path. Although we may feel clumsy at times, we are participants in the miracle of true 21st century discipleship, traversing a path that is challenging and rarely predictable. We embody the ability to adjust to changing realities and demands with speed, stability, and strength.

As I blurted out all these thoughts and statistics and stared at this group of disciples around the table, I realized the gift of what it means to be a woman in ministry today. I am glad that the church is entrusting the church to young women again. And I am glad that we sisters in Young Clergy Women International and beyond are giving the church, and the world, the gift of spiritual agility. Read more